Pioneering approach to Parkinson’s research

Can spider venom be used to treat Parkinson’s?

Now a new research collaboration led by Flinders University neurobiology expert, chief investigator Associate Professor Cedric Bardy, will investigate the use of venom to treat Parkinson’s, the degenerative brain disease without a cure.

The highly-innovative research will use spider venom on live human brain cells manufactured in the Bardy Laboratory at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) in Adelaide.

A $950,000 grant supported by US and Australian funding bodies – the Michael J Fox Foundation, Shake It Up Australia and The Hospital Research Foundation Group – will lead Associate Professor Bardy and collaborators to look for a new and effective way to prevent degeneration of neurons in the brain for people living with Parkinson’s.

Dr Cedric Bardy. Photo Flinders Foundation

The Adelaide researchers will collaborate with with teams at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in the US, Friedrich-Alexander-University of Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany, The University of Queensland, University of Sydney and University of Melbourne.

The project aims to address the ‘tug of war’ that is experienced by the neurons of people with Parkinson’s, which Associate Professor Bardy says is caused by exaggerated electrophysiological demand and low levels of energy available.

“In Parkinson’s disease, fewer dopamine cells are left behind to do the work of thousands of cells that died too early. This in turn stresses those remaining cells and gives them less energy to spend on the business-as-usual activities such as repairing themselves,” he says.

“That results in further degradation of the remaining cells, further perpetuating the problem.

“Artificially raising the energy in brain cells is not easy, but what if we could give the cells a break from too much activity? A few hours break each day could be enough to give these brain cells a chance to restore their energy levels and repair themselves from all the extra work.”

This is where natural venoms come in, which have shown to be full of ion channel modulators that could be effective in re-prioritising cellular signalling.

Photo courtesy The University of Queensland

“Our team will test whether the right venom molecule could transiently lower mid-brain dopamine neuron activity, improve cellular repair and make these precious cells last longer,” says Associate Professor Bardy says, Head of the SAHMRI Laboratory for Human Neurophysiology and Genetics.

“We will also be using live human neurons generated in the lab with non-invasive stem cell technologies, to investigate the therapeutic potential of these natural venom-derived molecules to prevent the overload of electrical activity.

“If successful, a therapeutic breakthrough that can slow down neurodegeneration in Parkinson’s disease will change the lives of millions of people worldwide.”

Current Parkinson’s treatments don’t help in the long-term. It is a challenging, incurable, degenerative condition which can be characterised by muscle rigidity and tremors, as well as non-movement symptoms such as pain, sensory and gastrointestinal changes, anxiety and more.

Parkinson’s affects 100,000 Australians and 10 million people worldwide.

Current Parkinson’s treatments raise the brain’s dopamine neurotransmitter levels or restrict exaggerated electrical activity with deep brain stimulation. However, both of these treatments become ineffective with time and fail to stop the progression of the disease.

Photo: Pixabay

Clyde Campbell, CEO and founder of Shake It Off Australia who lives with Young Onset Parkinson’s, says the three-year project is highly innovative in its combination of the latest technological advances in electrophysiology and genomic repair.

“Recent breakthroughs to generate patient-derived neuronal culture from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), which Associate Professor Bardy’s team has pioneered, provide novel opportunities to gain insight into Parkinson’s and test new therapeutic ideas pre-clinically,” Mr Campbell says.

Todd Sherer, Executive Vice President, Research Strategy of The Michael J. Fox Foundation, says the research may lead to clinical trials.

“The project will reveal the underlying mechanisms of exaggerated electrical activity in Parkinson’s patients’ midbrain neurons, shed light on new druggable pathways and test innovative natural neuropeptides to raise the energy levels depleted in PD neurons,” says Mr Sherer.

“Overall, the outcomes will determine the disease-modifying merits of electro-pharmaceutics in Parkinson’s and pave the way for clinical trials. Slowing Parkinson’s progression will have life-changing benefits for millions of people affected globally.”

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Olivia Nassaris, Executive Director of The Hospital Research Foundation Group – Parkinson’s division, also announced funding for the first long-term, double blinded placebo trial in Parkinson’s and laser light therapy to slow disease progression.

Principal investigator of the SYMBYX new Parkinson’s randomised control clinical trial is Dr Joyce Ramos, from the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Flinders University, who is also a Research Fellow at the University of Queensland.

The 2022 Flinders trial will allow investigators to assess the effects of light therapy (or PBM) for at least one year.

THRFG-Parkinson’s have recently announced a special Christmas funding appeal for research into infra-red light therapy and have also committed to fully funding this new trial. Publication and results are expected in 2023.

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