The breakthrough could lead to new designer drugs for the neurological condition which affects around 12,000 people in Scotland.
Health experts had previously discovered an inherited form of early-onset Parkinson’s in patients which is caused by mutations in a gene called Pink1.
Now researchers at the University of Dundee have discovered the gene switches on an enzyme called Parkin, whose main job is to keep cells healthy by removing damaged proteins.
They hope the breakthrough discovery will pave the way for a potential new treatment for the disease which is currently incurable.
The Scottish research was partly funded by the charity set up by Back to the Future actor Michael J Fox after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
Dr Miratul Muqit, of the university’s Medical Research Council’s protein phosphorylation unit, said; “Parkinson’s is a devastating degenerative brain disorder and currently we have no drugs in the clinic that can cure or slow the disease down.
“Many genes have been linked to Parkinson’s, but a major roadblock has been determining the function of these genes in the brain and how the mutations lead to brain degeneration.
“Our work suggests this pathway can’t be switched on in Parkinson’s patients with genetic mutations in Pink1 or Parkin. More research will be needed to see whether this also happens in Parkinson’s patients who do not carry these mutations.”
The study involved testing the way the Pink1 enzyme reacted with Parkin and the 18 other known genes. The team have told how a “staggering” result took place between Pink1 and Parkin but nothing happened with any of the other genes.
Scientists now hope a drug which mimics Pink1 in switching on the Parkin gene can be developed to reduce the amount of damage Parkinson’s causes to a sufferer’s body.
The university’s joint study leader, Professor Dario Alessi, said: “Although further studies are required, our findings suggest that designer drugs that switch this pathway on could be used to treat successfully Parkinson’s.”
He said his team were already talking to pharmaceutical companies but any treatment was at least ten years away. “It is shocking in 2012 there is not a single treatment that can slow neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
“There are seven million people in Europe living with neurological diseases and we expect the ageing population to double that number within 20 years.”