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October 21st, 2014
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Lifestyle Health Israeli Researchers Make Breakthrough in Parkinson’s Disease Protection

Israeli Researchers Make Breakthrough in Parkinson’s Disease Protection

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Human cells afflicted with Parkinson’s diseaseIn an important medical breakthrough, Israeli researchers have identified a natural protein that protects brain cells from Parkinson’s disease. This discovery increases the potential to develop new methods to treat or prevent the incurable degenerative disease.

The erratic movement symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are caused by the death of brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. Most current treatments involve dopamine injections into the brain, or attempt to recreate brain cell activity. The protein, discovered by researchers at Beilinson Hospital and Tel Aviv University, prevents the initial degeneration and death of these brain cells.

Recently, the scientists at the Technion produced a drug that blocks the enzyme which causes the breakdown of dopamine. However, no scientist has yet been able to develop a specific treatment to counteract the death of the brain cells that manufacture dopamine, and thereby actively oppose the primary cause of Parkinson’s disease.

The research team responsible for the latest discovery included Dr. Nirit Lev, a senior neurologist at Beilinson, and the chief of the neurology department, Prof. Israel Steiner, along with Prof. Daniel Offen and Prof. Eldad Melamed of the Tel Aviv University Medical School.

The research is an extension of Dr. Lev’s doctoral thesis, which identified genes that stimulate the likelihood of developing Parkinson’s. Lev focused on a gene called DJ-1, which strengthens the cell’s own defense mechanisms. A number of studies have revealed that mutations of this gene are related to an increased risk of Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and neurological complications associated with diabetes.

As a result, the researchers determined that to achieve the protection of nerve cells, scientists would need to develop a drug that duplicated the DJ-1 gene. During the research, a peptide (short protein) was identified that connects itself to another peptide, enabling it to penetrate the brain-blood barrier and enter the nerve system that produces dopamine; that protein then proceeds to protect those nerve cells.
The protein, which the researchers called NID-13, has been tested over the past three years in laboratory mice that were engineered to display symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The findings have shown that it is effective. Having registered a patent for the protein, the researchers are now engaging in efforts to get the findings published in professional medical literature.

“Our ability to ‘correct’ the level of DJ-1 was important, because Parkinson’s usually presents itself after such a massive destruction of nerve cells that there are not enough cells remaining to compensate for those that died,” explained Lev. “We have a relatively long time to intervene and administer a drug treatment that will prevent cell death. When we succeed in protecting the nerve cells and preventing their gradual death, the patients will have their quality of life restored.” 

The mice in the Tel Aviv study were administered the protein by subcutaneous injection; it is likely to be administered in humans by injection too, at least at the outset, to avoid the potential pitfall of the digestive system breaking it down. However, medical science has also developed methods for administering proteins in pills, nasal sprays or patches.

Parkinson’s disease is diagnosed in about 1 percent of the population over age 65, and it is the second most common degenerative brain disease after Alzheimer’s. In a study released in 2011 by Tel Aviv and Haifa Universities and Maccabi Health Services, scientists disclosed that about 25,000 Israelis are afflicted with Parkinson’s. That study also showed a 50% increase in the frequency of Parkinson’s in a decade (1998-2007), occurring 256 times in every 100,000 people.

Other studies are ongoing throughout the world to break open the Parkinson’s mystery and develop a treatment based on the disease’s genetic makeup. In October of 2010, an international team of researchers – managed by Harvard and including members from the Technion – reported that they had identified a group of genes related to the development of Parkinson’s, as well as a protein known as PGC-1 alpha that could be utilized as a treatment for the disease.

In 2006, a drug called Azilect, developed by Teva Pharmaceuticals and researchers at the Technion, was approved for medical use to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Teva had attempted to obtain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to also market Azilect as a drug that decelerates the underlying disease. However, an FDA panel ruled this past October that Azilect had not been proven to have any effect on the disease.

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