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Swiss success in imaging proteins linked to Parkinson’s raises drugs hope

Swiss success in imaging proteins linked to Parkinson’s raises drugs hope

The research could accelerate testing and development of drugs for other neurodegenerative diseases
Image brain scans showing progression of Parkisnson's
A team of Swiss researchers has for the first time imaged the activity of a protein linked to Parkinson’s disease in a living human brain | AC Immune SA

A team of Swiss researchers has for the first time imaged the activity of a protein linked to Parkinson’s disease in a living human brain. Led by Oskar Hansson, a professor of neurology at Lund University, the team’s findings could potentially accelerate testing and development of drugs to treat neurodegenerative diseases. 

When misfolded and clumped, the protein in question — alpha-synuclein or a-syn in short — is believed to be the pathological hallmark of Parkinson’s and other related neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple system atrophy (MSA) and Lewy body dementia. 

The researchers were able to detect the a-syn protein in the brain using a tracer and a method called positron emission tomography (PET). Swiss biotech firm AC Immune, which developed the tracer, claims it can differentiate people with MSA, Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia from healthy individuals. 

A tracer is a substance used to trace the course of a biological process due to its radioactive or unusual isotopic mass. 

“This is the first time that a PET tracer has reliably detected a-syn aggregates in patients’ brains,” said Hansson. “The results represent great clinical progress in the quest to provide a diagnostic tool for patients suffering from MSA and potentially other a-synucleinopathies.” 

He added that the development could ultimately lead to earlier and more reliable differentiation for the difficult-to-diagnose neurogenerative diseases. 

The Michael J. Fox Foundation, which funded the research, said that the development was an important step in finding an a-syn tracer. It added that a similar strategy for imaging proteins linked to Alzheimer’s had had a major effect on accelerating drug development for the disease. 

“Selective imaging tracers can make an enormous difference in advancement of new therapies for synucleinopathies such as Parkinson’s disease,” said Jamie Eberling, SVP of Research at Michael J. Fox Foundation. “As they have for Alzheimer’s disease, PET tracers for a primary pathological protein would be pivotal in transforming the future of Parkinson’s research and care.” 

The team achieved the first clinical results working with individuals suffering from MSA, with AC Immune claiming that its PET tracer is safe to be further developed into an imaging agent for the human brain. It also presented clinical proof-of-concept data for an a-syn PET tracer as an imaging agent to identify MSA patients. 

The findings were presented at the International Conference on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases and Related Neurological Disorders in Barcelona, Spain in March 2022. 

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