Parkinson’s disease (PD) is the fastest-growing neurological disorder in the world. According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson's disease each year. More than 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s disease.
While there is currently no cure for Parkinson’s disease, a large and incredibly promising Parkinson’s research pipeline is emerging. In this article, we will discuss advancements in Parkinson’s disease research, treatments under development, current treatment approaches, and the future of Parkinson's disease treatment.
Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. However, our understanding of how Parkinson’s disease develops and progresses has grown significantly. We have gained a greater understanding of genetic influences, risk factors, and the series of events that leads to damaged or lost brain cells. This growing body of research has created a strong foundation for developing new treatments and therapies.
For years, Parkinson’s disease treatments have focused on treating the symptoms of the disease and increasing dopamine levels in the brain. Recently, this focus has shifted—new treatments are being tested in clinical trials to slow, stop, or even reverse the disease.
Stem cell therapy and gene therapy are among these treatments under development.
Over the past 20 years, researchers have investigated potential strategies to utilize stem cells to supplement dopamine by replacing the lost dopaminergic neurons with stem cell-derived equivalents. Currently, researchers are working to utilize embryonic stem cells (ESCs), induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), and neural stem cells (NSCs) to induce the differentiation of such stem cells into mature dopaminergic cells.
Stem cell therapy for the treatment of PD has proven successful in many animal studies, including in monkey, pig, rat, and mice models. The first clinical trials investigating the use of stem cell therapy aiming to combat the loss of substantia nigra neurons are already underway in the U.S., Japan, and Europe.
Gene therapy is another exciting avenue for Parkinson’s disease treatment. Several clinical trials have
utilized various gene therapy strategies, whether to change the circuitry in the brain, support the survival of neurons, increase dopamine production, or increase the effectiveness of levodopa treatment. These include:
The manifestation of Parkinson’s disease symptoms tends to vary significantly from patient to patient. There are more than 40 known Parkinson’s disease symptoms, and not all patients will experience the same combination of symptoms. Individuals with Parkinson’s disease will likely experience a combination of both motor and non-motor symptoms throughout the disease course.
Currently, treatment of Parkinson’s disease is symptom-based. Doctors typically prescribe a combination of effective medications depending on which symptoms are present in a given patient. Medications prescribed to treat Parkinson’s disease symptoms include:
Depending on the patient, surgical procedures such as deep brain stimulation (DBS), and supportive therapies, such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and speech and language therapy, may also be used as part of treatment.
While Parkinson’s disease symptoms can vary significantly from patient to patient, the underlying cause of the symptoms remains the same—Parkinson’s disease is caused by a loss of nerve cells in the substantia nigra. It primarily impacts dopaminergic, or dopamine-producing, neurons, ultimately resulting in reduced dopamine production and impaired movement.
While there may not be one single cure for Parkinson’s disease, multiple effective treatments may be used in combination to either:
Effective treatment will rely heavily on the ability to diagnose Parkinson’s disease in the earliest stages. While no brain scan or lab test (e.g. blood, cerebrospinal fluid, and urine) can currently provide a definitive diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, researchers are working tirelessly to pinpoint specific hallmarks and symptoms in earlier stages to support early diagnosis.
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