Making progress in Parkinson’s disease

01 June 2021

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder, with many debilitating symptoms that worsen over time.

WEHI researchers recently established the Parkinson’s Disease Research Centre to take a collaborative and patient-focused approach to tackling this significant health challenge.

Associate Professor Grant Dewson, who leads the centre, said WEHI’s approach had the right ingredients for life-changing results.

“The multidisciplinary team we have assembled covers a wide spectrum of medical research, from fundamental discovery, right through to the development and testing of potential treatments and diagnostics, and connections with clinicians and patients at the Royal Melbourne Hospital (RMH).”
Associate Professor Grant Dewson

Searching for a cause

The death of specific nerve cells in the brain that make a chemical called dopamine causes the progressive motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, including tremors, slow movement, imbalance and rigidity.

Yet it is still unclear why and how dopamine-producing nerve cells are lost. Professor David Komander, Associate Professor Dewson and their teams are tackling the question of why specific neurons die.

Professor Komander, a world leader in the structure and function of proteins, said the proteins Parkin, PINK1 and ubiquitin – if not properly controlled – had been linked to Parkinson’s disease.

“Drugs that, for example, activate Parkin or PINK1, or mimic or promote their effect may have the potential to reduce harmful cell death in the brain.”
Professor David Komander
Rosie Watson in a laboratory
Clinician researcher Associate Professor Rosie Watson.

A diagnostic challenge

Diagnosis for Parkinson’s disease is mostly based on clinical symptoms, which means it is often diagnosed late.

Associate Professor Rosie Watson is a clinician researcher at WEHI and a geriatrician at The Royal Melbourne Hospital. Her team is looking for indicators, or biomarkers, of Lewy body dementia, which affects up to 80 per cent of people living with Parkinson’s

She said her team was leading the first multi-site, observational clinical and biomarker study in Australia.

“By detecting, understanding, and monitoring the progression of the disease, we can enhance the ability to implement early and accurate diagnostic tests for Lewy body disease. We hope this will also, in the long-term, allow us to intervene with new treatments that slow progression of the disease at earlier stages.”
Associate Professor Rosie Watson

Better treatment options

Professor Guillaume Lessene leads a team of medicinal chemists who work with researchers on drug discovery programs, translating discoveries into treatments.

“There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease and current treatments cannot slow or stop disease progression. Through our collaborative approach, and using the latest technology at WEHI’s National Drug Discovery Centre, we are able to identify new chemical compounds and optimise them so they may lead to new treatments for people with Parkinson’s disease.”

Professor David Komander with Parkinson's patient Shane Kirne at WEHI.
Professor David Komander with Parkinson’s patient Shane Kirne at WEHI.

Shane’s story

For Shane Kirne, one word changed his life forever – Parkinson’s. Shane was otherwise fit and healthy when he was diagnosed at 58.

“Until the neurosurgeon made the diagnosis, I still had hope it could be something else.”
Shane Kirne

“My only symptoms were slight movements in my left hand and some annoying mistyping.”

Shane and his wife Gwen decided to make the most of every moment. “Gwen and I went travelling. We did walking tours wherever possible, and went skiing, knowing it might be my last chance.

“I believe the answers lie in medical research. My future, and that of others with Parkinson’s disease, relies on the discoveries WEHI researchers are working on now.”
Shane Kirne

The Parkinson’s Disease Research Centre at WEHI brings together world-leading biologists, chemists and clinicians to find better treatments for this illness. You can give much-needed relief and hope to people living with Parkinson’s disease by donating to WEHI today.

To donate to WEHI

Visit wehi.edu.au/donate or phone 03 9345 2403

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