New drug tests could be key to Parkinson’s

Parkinson's affects an estimated 127,000 in the UK
Parkinson's affects an estimated 127,000 in the UK
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University start-up aims to accelerate race for a cure, says Lysimachos Zografos

PARKINSON’S disease can have devastating effects. As well as debilitating physical symptoms – typically including tremors and impaired movement – mood disorders such as anxiety and depression are common. This was recently brought to the public’s attention with the suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams, who was suffering the early stages of Parkinson’s when he died.

The disease affects an estimated 127,000 in the UK alone – that’s one in 500 – and millions worldwide. Yet there is no cure, and current drugs have unpleasant side-effects.

At Parkure, an Edinburgh-based start-up based at the University of Edinburgh, we hope to help find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. We were set up in May 2014 by a team of academics and senior biotechnologists, and recently launched a crowdfunding campaign on the Sharein.com platform to help with our research. This is a first for Scotland and a worldwide first for Parkinson’s disease drug discovery. If we can raise £100,000, it will allow us to start testing drugs and could go a long way to finding a critical breakthrough in treatment for this disease. Using crowdfunding also allows us to empower those with an interest in beating Parkinson’s to get involved and help alleviate some of the early risk.

The biology of Parkinson’s disease is complex and that’s why, despite many scientific advances, there’s still no cure.

Our research has been focused on developing a new method to look for drugs based on fast-tracking the findings of academic research. We have developed a way of testing high numbers of drugs on fruit flies that have been genetically engineered to develop Parkinson’s. This way, we can identify the drugs that reverse the symptoms and begin biochemical studies on them.

Nerve cells in fruit flies act in similar ways to those of humans, and flies have also been successful in the discovery of drugs in the past. Limited only by manpower and funding, we can test around 10,000 drug compounds per year, which would be impossible using other organisms, such as mice.

We use a drug “repurposing” approach – which means the drugs we test are already known and used in the market to treat other diseases. As a result, for successful drugs there can be a quick route from lab trials to market. This can potentially benefit Parkinson’s sufferers and their families faster. Repurposing can also function as a better starting point for us to design new drugs.

Edinburgh has a world-class track record in medical innovation stretching back centuries. We are hugely fortunate to be part of Edinburgh Science Triangle, a collaboration of seven science parks, four universities and two agritech institutes around Edinburgh and Midlothian that forms one of Europe’s top ten R&D locations.

More than 3,000 researchers with particular strengths in human and animal health are based here, including the University of Edinburgh’s world-renowned Medical School at Edinburgh BioQuarter and Roslin BioCentre, a world-leading centre of excellence for life sciences.

My own background is a mixture of academia and industry. I did my PhD on the use of animals, such as mice and fruit flies, on the study of human nervous system disease. I then went on to work for a biotechnology company that genetically engineers fruit flies for pharmaceutical companies who want to test drugs.

Having researched Parkinson’s for a while, I was only recently given the opportunity to connect directly with those affected by it. This helped me understand that the impact of the disease is very personal – but also widespread. Parkinson’s affects one in 100 people over 60 – a population projected to grow to 1.8 billion by 2050. With the cost of Parkinson’s estimated at $14.4 billion a year (£9 billion) in the US alone and £2 billion in the UK, this suggests a very big additional economic burden for all of us.

In 5 per cent of cases the sufferer is under 40, and as young as 20. At this age, coming to terms with the fact that you may not reach your potential can be particularly tough.

In short, Parkinson’s does not discriminate, and doesn’t wait. Every hour, someone in the UK is told they have Parkinson’s, so every piece of research is vital. By working together and combining our resources, we really can make a difference.

Find out more, or register as a supporter here http://parkure.co.uk

• Lysimachos Zografos is the CEO of Parkure, an Edinburgh Science Triangle-supported company