Making Parkinson’s disease research personal
by Guest Author on 15 Feb 2019
Last month, MRC Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit scientists hosted a lab tour for people affected by Parkinson’s disease. Clinical Programme Leader Dr Esther Sammler, also an honorary consultant neurologist at NHS Tayside, explains why listening to the experiences of people living with the disease is so important for research.
Parkinson’s disease is a common condition in which parts of the brain become progressively damaged over many years. Most people are familiar with the physical signs of the disease, such as slowness of movement, stiffness and limb shaking. But other symptoms – that are just as troubling – include sleep and mood problems, loss of smell, and declining memory skills. In Scotland alone, there are 12,000 people living with the condition.
Although there are treatments available to reduce the symptoms, and help people maintain their quality of life for as long as possible, there’s currently no cure. But as scientists, we believe that we will eventually find cures, through better understanding the disease.
Knowing more about the disease will also help towards developing more treatments that slow or, even better, prevent the loss of nerve cells in the brain and the progression of disabling symptoms. Chemical compounds that target one of the most common genetic factors causing the disease – a mutation in the LRRK2 gene – are currently being tested in phase one clinical trials.
By sharing our research with people affected by Parkinson’s disease we want to help them learn, participate and shape research into their condition. This is how the Dundee Parkinson’s Research Interest Group (DRIG) came about – a group of people affected either directly or indirectly with Parkinson’s.
The ‘Meet the scientists’ lab tour was one of our many jointly-organised events with this group, aiming to give members first-hand access to the results of new research and to the labs where Parkinson’s disease research is taking place. The group also helps support clinical trials by distributing relevant information to their members.
The tour started with a welcome address by DRIG chair Marc van Grieken, followed by an introduction by our unit general manager, Dr Paul Davies. Professor Dario Alessi, director of our unit, then gave our guests an overview of our Parkinson’s disease research programme.
Explaining our science
A major focus of our research is finding out how brain cells talk to each other and how disruption of these processes causes Parkinson’s disease. Dario described some of the fundamental discoveries he’s made towards understanding the LRRK2 gene. In my own research project, I’ve developed a research blood test to assess the activity of the LRRK2 enzyme, aiming to help identify patients who will most likely benefit from future treatments in development.
Next, our guests broke up into small groups for a visit to the Mass Spectrometry Facility – where we accurately measure the weight of different molecules within a sample, allowing us to identify and study them in more detail.
Students and postdoc researchers explained the work they do at the lab bench during a tour of the ‘wet lab’. They had the chance to learn how a process in our bodies that removes toxins may play a role in Parkinson’s disease, by viewing cells with fluorescent tags down a microscope.
Sharing personal perspectives
The visit ended with a ‘Mix and mingle with the scientists’ session. In a relaxed atmosphere, over coffee and biscuits, our guests discussed research questions and motivations for working on Parkinson’s disease in Dundee with students, postdocs and clinicians.
Hearing personal experiences of people living with Parkinson’s disease is both inspiring and motivational. For me personally, the reciprocal dialogue and respect between clinicians, researchers and people with Parkinson’s disease is important for mutual empowerment, informed participation in research and, eventually, finding a cure.
Read how Professor Miratul Muqit’s work could help towards developing future drugs for patients with Parkinson’s disease.