To defeat a foe like Parkinson’s, we must expose its secrets

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Last year, the Parkinson’s and scientific communities were surprised to learn that at least three people who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, had exhibited Parkinson’s-like symptoms after infection.

This was a wake-up call to yet another possible nefarious side-effect of the virus. In a commentary examining the findings, Van Andel Institute’s Dr. Patrik Brundin, along with Dr. Avindra Nath of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and Dr. J. David Beckham of University of Colorado, said the cases suggest that COVID-19 may be part of a “perfect storm” for Parkinson’s disease.

It is, of course, unfortunate to discover that the virus at the heart of the pandemic may be linked in some way to Parkinson’s. More research is needed to truly understand the implications. But the news makes April, which is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, even more significant in its galvanizing effect on our collective efforts toward breakthroughs that could be life-changing for people with Parkinson’s.

For many of us, a link between a neurodegenerative disorder like Parkinson’s and a virus may be unexpected. Yet we are learning every day that Parkinson’s may have roots in many areas such as the digestive system, the immune system, metabolism and inflammation. 

For example, VAI scientists and collaborators have linked the appendix to Parkinson’s risk. We’ve pinpointed toxic bile acids as a possible indicator of Parkinson’s. Our scientists, in collaboration with colleagues at other institutions, are exploring the role of aging in the disease’s onset. Another project will study the relationship between a Parkinson’s-related protein and the brain’s emotional regulator, to better understand psychiatric symptoms of the disease such as depression and anxiety. We also are investigating how infections and inflammation impact Parkinson’s risk.

This foundational work is vital as we search for potential therapies to slow or stop the disease’s progression. This is a feat not possible with current treatments. 

Drug repurposing — or using a drug approved for one illness to treat another — also has shown promise for impeding Parkinson’s. Diabetes, for example, takes advantage of similar pathways in the body that Parkinson’s uses to take root. Medications designed and approved to treat diabetes might therefore be useful in treating Parkinson’s.

VAI currently collaborates with the U.K.-based Cure Parkinson’s to fund clinical trials that research this exact question. Other drugs currently being prioritized by this program, called the International Linked Clinical Trials initiative, include several diabetes drugs, an antidepressant and a type of cough medicine.

Through efforts like these, VAI is rooting out the mechanisms behind Parkinson’s so that we may defeat it. Sometimes, these diseases throw a curveball, such as in the cases of Parkinson’s symptoms in COVID-19 patients. That is the kind of foe we’re up against: one that we understand better than ever before, and one that still holds many mysteries waiting to be solved.

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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