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'A Pathway' to Fight Parkinson's

Editor's Note: Stay tuned for an MJFF News in context about this research.

Research by the University of Nebraska Medical Center that aims at using the immune system to fight Parkinson’s disease offers what one scientist says is a potentially effective approach to battling the condition.

“It gives us a pathway,’’ said Dr. Stanley Appel, a Texas researcher who is familiar with the UNMC work.

A vaccine developed by UNMC researchers reverses an experimental form of Parkinson’s disease in mice.

The results are promising, but it’s still years before the vaccine would be available for any routine use in humans, said Dr. Howard Gendelman, a leader of the research and chairman of the UNMC Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Neuroscience.

Even though the vaccine reversed Parkinson’s in mice, the best hope is that it could halt the progression of the disease in humans, he said. In other words, the vaccine would not be a cure for Parkinson’s.

Within two years, researchers could test if the vaccine is safe for humans, he said. Within five years, the effectiveness could be tested.

Gendelman and researcher R. Lee Mosley spoke about their new study of the vaccine at a press conference Monday on the UNMC campus. The study was published Monday in the Journal of Immunology.

Gendelman said the research builds on his past Parkinson’s work at UNMC. He said that about a decade ago he began researching how a vaccine could be used to trigger the immune system to fight Parkinson’s.

The latest version of the vaccine is significanlty more effective in mice and holds more promise to be effective in humans, he said.

Appel said he considers Gendelman a leading Parkinson’s scientist. Other leading researchers are at Columbia University and Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

An estimated 1 million people in the United States and more than 4 million people worldwide have Parkinson’s, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Signs of the disease include shaking, slow movement and stiffness.

Monnie Lindsay, diagnosed with Parkinson’s 16 years ago, knows about the UNMC research and said she is hopeful.

“If they could just halt that progress that would be a huge step,’’ the 54-year-old said.

The Omahan said the disease makes it difficult for her to sign her name or stand and chop vegetables.

Because of weakened facial muscles, it’s difficult to smile. It makes her angry when an unknowing stranger in a grocery store line tells her to, “Smile it’s not so bad.”

The cause of the disease is the loss of neurons that produce dopamine, a chemical that controls movement and balance.

The loss triggers a response in the immune system that destroys even more of the dopamine-producing neurons. The result is that the disease becomes worse.

Injection of the vaccine produced cells that reversed the disease by changing how the immune system in mice responds to the loss of dopamine.

Human studies are under way at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and, within the next month, at UNMC to determine if the characteristics of the human immune system are the same as that of mice. If the characteristics are the same, researchers would know if the vaccine is worth testing in humans.

Appel said the UNMC work is the only Parkinson’s research he is aware of that focuses on using the immune system to protect the dopamine-producing neurons.

Other Parkinson’s research has focused on how normal proteins can become toxic and destroy the neurons, said Appel, chairman of the department of neurology at Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston.

Gendelman said the vaccine research does not involve the use of any type of stem cells.

UNeMed, the company that markets UNMC inventions, has filed a patent application for the vaccine, said Michael Dixon, president of UNeMed. The company is owned by the NU Board of Regents.

Gendelman and Mosley worked on the research with graduate students Ashley Reynolds, David Stone and Jessica Hutter.

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