Scottish researchers make major breakthrough in the battle against Parkinson’s

Michael J Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1992. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
Michael J Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1992. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
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Experts at a Scottish university have developed a clinical test that could lead to a major breakthrough in controlling the spread of Parkinson’s disease.

Professor Dario Alessi and his team at the University of Dundee, collaborated with the Michael J Fox Foundation, GlaxoSmithKline, and others, to examine a gene which mutates to cause inherited forms of the illness.

The inherited form of Parkinson’s – which accounts for around 10 per cent of cases – is prevalent in people who contract the disease early.

Elevated levels of the LRRK2 gene are also found in non-inherited Parkinson’s, leading Alessi and his team to conclude that controlling this enzyme holds the key to developing a treatment for the disease.

High-profile sufferers of the illness include singer Neil Diamond who announced his retirement from touring earlier this week, and legendary Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.

Alessi said he worked for 12 years to figure out how LRRK2 functions after the gene was first discovered in 2004.

He said: “What we’ve done is work out what LRRK2 does, how it functions because that wasn’t known.

“It took us 12 years and this was by far the hardest project I’ve worked on.

“GSK gave us the drug-like molecules to explore the biology and we did a lot of very sophisticated mass spectrometry, and we also worked with scientists in Munich and this enabled us to discover the key proteins that LRRK2 regulates directly.”

The painstaking work carried out by the team at the University of Dundee has now enabled top scientists at Denali Therapeutics in San Francisco, which specialises in finding ways to defeat neurodegenerative diseases, to commence testing LRRK2 inhibitors on humans.

Alessi added: “Patients who have developed Parkinson’s disease at a very early stage, if they have elevated LRRK2 will take the inhibitor and the hope is that would stall or in time even reverse the progression of the disease.

“I think within the next year there are likely to be five or six companies doing similar trials to Denali.”