The University of Sheffield and the charity Parkinson’s UK are working together to modify a number of drug compounds that have been found to boost cell function in people living with Parkinson’s. 

The project is led by Dr Heather Mortiboys and her team from the university’s Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) and its Neuroscience Institute.

Funding of £100,000 has been provided by the Virtual Biotech Programme – Parkinson’s UK’s drug development arm. 

Dopamine-containing brain cells – vital for healthy coordination and movement – rely on energy-producing mitochondria to function.

In people living with Parkinson’s, however, the mitochondria are disrupted and the cells begin to fail and slowly die.

Mortiboys and her team have identified a number of drug compounds which could boost the function of these dopamine-containing brain cells.

Their previous research utilised recently developed methods to grow these brain cells from the skin cells of patients with Parkinson’s disease, and importantly they developed a way to generate them in high numbers – something never achieved before – to test the identified drug compounds on these patient-derived cells.

Researchers isolated a number of these compounds which were found to boost the mitochondrial function in these dopamine-producing brain cells and potentially reduce cell death; the cause of Parkinson’s symptoms such as loss of movement, tremors and rigidity.

Over the next 12 months, they hope to identify a lead molecule from the compounds which has the most beneficial effects on mitochondrial function of the brain cells.

They then hope to progress it along the drug discovery pipeline with partners at the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Sheffield Biomedical Research Centre.

It is hoped this new work will lead to the development of a treatment which will protect these brain cells, slow the progression of Parkinson’s and extend the quality of life for people living with the disease.

Mortiboys, says: “The partnership between our team and Parkinson’s UK could lead to a UK first in the development of treatments for Parkinson’s, putting our research one step closer to pioneering a breakthrough treatment for Parkinson’s patients.

“All the clinical treatments for people living with Parkinson’s at the moment are based on easing these sometimes-devastating symptoms.

“With this new funding award through the Virtual Biotech Programme, 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.”

Richard Morphy, drug discovery manager at Parkinson’s UK, said: “This is an exciting new approach that could rescue defective mitochondria inside neurons to prevent dysfunction and degeneration of dopamine-producing brain cells.

“With 148,000 people living with Parkinson’s in the UK, there is a desperate need for new and better treatments for Parkinson’s. We hope the project will identify a superior group of molecules that could one day deliver a life-changing drug for people living with the condition.”

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