A scientist at the University of Sheffield in England has been awarded a £100,000 grant by Parkinson’s UK to develop a treatment that might slow or stop the progression of Parkinson’s disease and protect brain cells.
The one-year grant, worth about $120,000, was given to Heather Mortiboys, a senior research fellow at the university’s Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN), by Parkinson’s Virtual Biotech Programme, the British charity’s therapeutic development arm.
“All the clinical treatments for people living with Parkinson’s at the moment are based on easing these sometimes devastating symptoms,” Mortiboys said in a press release. “With this new funding award … we have the potential to go on to develop a drug treatment which will actively address the root cause of these symptoms to slow, or halt the progression of Parkinson’s for the first time.”
Mitochondria, power factories for cells that include dopamine-producing brain cells, don’t work as they should in people with Parkinson’s disease. Resulting shortages in cellular energy cause neurons to fail and ultimately die, particularly dopamine neurons. Those nerve cells are responsible for movement and coordination, and rely on mitochondria to function.
In her previous work, Mortiboys developed a model of dopamine brain cells — using skin cells from patients — that allows researchers to test potential therapies. Her research team was able to grow high numbers of brain cells derived from these skin cells. They used them to identify compounds that support dopamine neurons and their mitochondrial function, and potentially lessen cell death.
With this award, Mortiboys and her team will try to pinpoint the molecules in these compounds that are of greatest benefit to mitochondria in producing the energy needed to support these brain cells. Working in collaboration with the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Sheffield Biomedical Research Centre, the scientists will then move the molecules into a drug discovery phase.
“There is an urgent need for treatments to protect the nerve cells that become damaged in patients with Parkinson’s disease, which will have a crucial impact in slowing the progression of the condition and improving the quality of life” said Pamela Shaw, director of SITraN and and the university’s new Neuroscience Institute.
Potential treatments identified through this process will be further developed through a partnership with the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, a Sheffield teaching hospital, Shaw said, adding “[w]e are hugely grateful to Parkinson’s UK for supporting this important translational research.”
“We are delighted to partner and work with Dr Heather Mortiboys and her team at the University of Sheffield. Through our Virtual Biotech initiative, we are committed to accelerating promising and breakthrough treatments for Parkinson’s,” said Richard Morphy, drug discovery manager at Parkinson’s UK.
“This is an exciting new approach that could rescue defective mitochondria inside neurons to prevent dysfunction and degeneration of dopamine-producing brain cells,” Morphy said.
Parkinson’s UK, which invests about $4.8 million a year in work that advances potential treatments, estimates that about 148,000 people in the U.K. have this neurodegenerative disease.