Stopping Parkinson's disease in its tracks may not be as far off as it seems thanks to a group of Kiwi researchers with some help from movie star Michael J Fox.
A team at Auckland University's Centre for Brain Research have received a $221,000 grant from the Michael J Fox Foundation to help fund a two year study which aims to slow the progression of the debilitating disease.
There is no cure for the neurodegenerative disorder which progressively erodes a person's mobility and affects about 10,000 people in New Zealand and six million people worldwide.
Co-leader of the research team Dr Victor Dieriks said the study would focus on the early effects of Parkinson's in the hope they could significantly slow progression of the disease which ended with uncontrollable movements including tremors.
"One of the problems with Parkinson's disease is we see people in their 60s, 70s, 80s having these sever motor symptoms so they can't move properly but that is already the end stage of the disease.
"Something happened 10, 15, even up to 50 years beforehand that made something go wrong in their brain or some part of their body and over time it reached the brain and it caused so much damage that you start to see the shaking symptoms," he said.
"What we are seeking is treatment that would delay or even prevent degeneration by targeting the earliest disease processes."
The problem was that by the time a person began to notice issues with their motor skills, it was often too late.
Earlier symptoms, which could pop up five to 10 years before the severe motor symptoms, included loss of smell and constipation and Dieriks hoped the disease could be treated as soon as they were noticed.
One of the earliest changes in the body is neuroinflammation, the inflammation of brain cells.
When something goes wrong in your body the immune system is activated to fight it but with neuroinflammation the immune system remains active and starts turning against your own body, Dieriks explained.
The research team would first look at cells called pericytes to find out whether a protein called alpha synuclein, which formed clumps and killed brain cells in people with Parkinson's, caused them to become inflamed.
Pericytes, which line the blood vessels through the brain, played a part in regulating inflammation by sending signals to the other cells in the brain.
If the protein did cause the pericytes to become inflamed, two anti-inflammatory drugs would be tested in the hope they could treat the pericytes which would then send signals to the other brain cells to let them know the immune system could be de-activated and stop them attacking the body.
"So far it's not clear what happens in the early stages of Parkinson's disease but there's some evidence that points to the fact that if we stop that early prolonged inflammation, that if we can halt that, then we can eventually delay the disease," Dieriks said.
Thanks to the Centre for Brain Research, the scientists could skip the usual first step of trials on mice or rats and use brain tissue straight away.
Pericyte cells isolated from a selection of brains held at the centre's Hugh Green Biobank in Auckland and tissue from the same people held in the centre's Neurological Foundation Human Brain Bank would be used to conduct the trial.
"Probably we're the only lab in the world that has a selection of pericytes from human brains and that's something the reviewers from the Michael J Fox foundation highlighted several times," Dieriks said.
Dieriks said getting funding from the Michael J Fox Foundation was a "big deal" because not many other New Zealand groups had received it. The foundation was also open to providing further funding for studies which showed promising results, he said.
The foundation is the world's largest non-profit funder of Parkinson's research, and is dedicated to accelerating a cure for Parkinson's disease and improved therapies for those living with the condition. Diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1991, Fox, who is 58, kept the health issue a secret from the public until 1998. He's become an advocate for finding a cure to the disease, and founded the foundation in 2000.
Other funding for the project has come from the Hugh Green Foundation, the Health Research Council of New Zealand, Neurological Foundation, Neuro Research Charitable Trust, and Ian and Sue Parton.