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Sunday, April 16, 2017
Cambridge study aims to 'transform' treatment for Parkinson's disease
April 17, 2017
"In Cambridgeshire – based on the research we’ve done – there will be a new case of Parkinson's disease diagnosed every four to five days."
Dr Roger Barker and his team set up the Barker Lab in Cambridge
This year's Parkinson’s Awareness Week is a special one. It is 200 years since James Parkinson wrote his famous essay on the Shaking Palsy, the first formal description of what we now call Parkinson’s disease.
And it is also 20 years since Dr Roger Barker and his team set up the Barker Lab in Cambridge.
Tucked away in the intriguingly named John van Geest Centre for Brain Repair, one of their main missions is to find better treatments for Parkinson’s disease (PD), with the ultimate aim of improving the lives of people with the condition.
Dr Barker said he was very excited when he received an invitation for a dinner in London to celebrate the 200th anniversary of James Parkinson’s achievement.
“I got an email asking if I would like to have dinner at James Parkinson’s house in Hoxton Square. I thought, great! So I turn up and it’s a Bill’s restaurant.
It is also 20 years since Dr Roger Barker and his team set up the Barker Lab in Cambridge
"You can have a meal there any day of the week, any time,” he said.
“I was talking to a man there who is a great expert on James Parkinson. I was saying how great it was to at least be in his house and he said ‘Well, it was largely destroyed during the war, so although it was here, it has largely been rebuilt’.”
Asked why he was so interested in researching PD himself, he replied: “It’s a common condition. In Cambridgeshire – based on the research we’ve done – there will be a new case of PD diagnosed every four to five days.
"It runs a very chronic course and gives people a lot of disability. So if you could do something better for it, it would help a lot of people.”
The causes of PD are largely unknown and there is currently no cure. The average age that someone develops the disease is in their late 60s. It is characterised by the loss of nerve cells in the brain, some of which contain the chemical dopamine.
It is the loss of this chemical that causes the symptoms of tremors, loss of facial expression, slowness and stiffness that are visible in people with PD.
Until recently, the condition has largely been treated with drugs. While the drugs often work, they have adverse side-effects and can become less effective over time.
However, Dr Barker and his team have been working on a different way to treat the condition.
One of their main missions is to find better treatments for Parkinson’s disease
Since 2010, they have been working on the EU-funded Transeuro project. The study brings together some of the Europe’s leading Parkinson’s researchers and works with 150 patients across Europe to develop cell-based therapies for PD.
The treatment works by extracting healthy dopamine cells and putting them in the brain of the patient, replacing diseased cells with healthy ones.
“It’s a bit like a skin transplant, but instead of skin cells we put dopamine cells into the brain,” Dr Barker explained.
The team successfully grafted their first patient in May 2015.
“The drugs that replace the dopamine work quite well, but create problems down the line. If we can better repair that bit of the system with cells, then we should be able to make a huge difference to people with this condition,” Dr Barker said.
He said that this kind of treatment could become mainstream within the next 10 years.
“I think it could transform the natural history of treatment for PD. It’s not a cure, but it means we will be able to treat the disease much more effectively.”
He added: “I think people should know that this is a common disease. As the population ages, it will become more common. We need better ways of treating it.
“There will be a natural point at which the average life expectancy of people living in the UK will be 90 to 95 years. The health care costs of looking after an elderly population with chronic brain diseases will bankrupt the country unless we can do something better to treat these conditions more effectively.”