Parkinson's disease may finally have met a foe even more powerful than Michael J. Fox.
Berg Pharma has teamed up with the Parkinson's Institute and Clinical Center (PI) for a study believed to be the first of its kind. By using artificial intelligence to analyze flesh and blood samples from people with Parkinson's, they hope to better understand the mysterious illness.
Niven Narain, co-founder, president, and chief technology officer of Berg Pharma, told Healthline the project is going to be a “game changer” when it comes to what we know about Parkinson's.
“We're looking into a disease cave and shining a light on the biology,” Narain said. “(PI) built the cave, and we built the flashlight.”
Using its trademark Berg Interrogative Biology platform, the biopharmaceutical company can take tissue, blood, and urine samples and analyze their molecular expressions. The samples will come from 200 Parkinson's patients and 200 control patients. The Berg technology will allow scientists to see the body's response to the disease from living people, almost in real time.
The Parkinson's patients represent a cross section in terms of age and symptomatic expressions of the disease. Like multiple sclerosis and other illnesses, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the havoc Parkinson's wreaks on the body.
“Through this platform, we will discover the staircase for the progression of Parkinson's disease,” Narain said.
Paving a Pathway to New Treatments
Such revelations could lead to new treatments, pharmaceutical and otherwise. It also will help patients and families better understand Parkinson's symptoms and prepare for possible long-term care.
“Compare it to the American airlines system. Maybe there are problems in Dallas, Miami, and at Kennedy Airport,” Narain said. “We're trying to determine where the hubs of activities are in a patient's biology and focus on those proteins.”
With the Berg platform, one tissue sample can provide 14 trillion pieces of information, Narain said.
Berg actually is seeking to re-engineer the body's natural chemical expressions, such as internal peptides, to fight disease. The company currently has a drug in clinical trials that attempts to teach cancer cells to produce glucose instead of lactic acid, which cancer thrives on.
“We can't just throw chemical-based drugs at this,” Narain said.
New Treatments Needed
Little is known about the cause of Parkinson's, although environment factors such as working around industrial solvents have been suspected. The PI estimates 2-3 percent of patients have a genetic mutation that could be the trigger.
“In the past, people have really focused on one substance or one molecule or one protein. But Parkinson's is multifactorial,” Dr. Birgitt Schuele, director of gene discovery and stem cell modeling for PI, told Healthline. “The key is to find signatures, a network for genes or proteins that can predict disease.”
Although considered a medical breakthrough at the time, the drugs Carbidopa and Levodopa remain the first line of treatment for Parkinson's, almost 50 years after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it.
Schuele said that Parkinson's treatment should involve physical and speech therapy as well. Even dance, tai chi, and yoga help.
“It sounds like not much has happened, but over the last 20 years, physicians and the whole community have realized it's not just the drug that you give someone, but the care around it,” Schuele said. “As long as you keep people active and moving, the disease is better taken care of.”
What Is Parkinson's Disease?
Parkinson's is a disease of the central nervous system. The brain develops difficulty in telling the body how to do certain things, such as walk. A sign of Parkinson's can be shuffling instead of walking normally. Some patients experience tremors, at first only on one side of the body. Some bend forward, a condition known as stooped posture.
Other symptoms not related to mobility can be depression, loss of smell, anxiety, sweating, and dementia. There even can be dermatological symptoms such as oily skin and dandruff.
According to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, as many as one million Americans have the disease. Another 50,000 get diagnosed each year, a number that only will go up as Baby Boomers age.
Actor Michael J. Fox has become the national face of Parkinson's disease and operates his own foundation for Parkinson's research.
Fox's group has teamed up with Alzheimer's Association and The W. Garfield Weston Foundation of Canada to offer research grants studying the similarities of the illnesses. The organizations announced the effort earlier this month.
While Parkinson's tends to be marked by mobility symptoms and Alzheimer's by loss of memory and reasoning, recent research has shown some similarities. Both diseases result in a buildup of proteins in the brain.