An innovative treatment for Parkinson’s disease has been tested on people for the first time. Participants have had glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) delivered directly to the brain by way of a port in the side of the head.
Their brains were then scanned and compared with those who had been given a placebo. Those who received the drug displayed visual evidence of improvements in the parts of the brain that had been affected by the condition.
It is too early in the process to know if the trial will be a success, but the study, which is a collaboration between Parkinson’s UK and North Bristol NHS Trust, offers hope for sufferers. Scientists say it could lead to damaged brain cells being “reawoken”.
Parkinson’s is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer's and causes damage to areas of the brain over time. Symptoms involve shaking and stiff muscles, making it hard to complete everyday tasks.
There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s nor a treatment to slow its progress, making developments in its treatment all the more important. Each year, around 145,000 people are diagnosed with the condition in the UK alone.
For the trial of this new treatment method, participants had robot-assisted surgery to insert four tubes into their brains. This means that GDNF can be administered to exactly the right parts of the organ with pinpoint accuracy.
It is a method that could be used to treat other conditions, such as Alzheimer’s in the future. Initially, just six people were involved in a safety study, but since then it has been extended to 35 participants over a nine-month period.
Dr Alan Whone, principal investigator, explained that although the average amount of time for which a patient in the study had been diagnosed was eight years, brain scans looked very different for those who had been given the drug. What showed up would be more conducive to a person who had only been diagnosed for two years.
He added: "We've shown with the Pet [positron emission tomography] scans that, having arrived, the drug then engages with its target, dopamine nerve endings, and appears to help damaged cells regenerate or have a biological response."
After the first nine months of being given GDNF or a placebo, all of the participants were then offered the drug. Once the entire 18 months had elapsed, both groups saw that the scores on the severity had improved by some degree compared to when they started.
Tom Phipps was one of those who took part and said: "My outcome was as positive as I could have wished for. I feel the trial brought me some time and has delayed the progress of my condition.
"The best part was absolutely being part of a group of people who've got a similar goal - not only the team of consultants and nurses but also the participants. You can't have expectations - you can only have hope."