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Existing drugs may help brain protect itself against Parkinson's

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Researchers at King's College London have investigated the properties of over 1,000 approved drugs to identify 2 with potential for Parkinson's.

The study, funded by Parkinson's UK and published in Scientific Reports, highlighted the protective properties of salbutamol, an anti-asthmatic drug, and triflusal, an aspirin-like drug, in a rat model of the condition. The team found both boosted the levels of a key protective factor in the brain and reduced the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells.

Parkinson's UK are now funding the next stage of the study, where the researchers will further investigate the potential of these drugs for treating Parkinson's.

Growth factors and Parkinson's

Growth factors have a key role in supporting the development, growth and survival of our bodies and brains. There are many different types, including GDNF, which was recently featured in a BBC documentary.

Like GDNF, fibroblast growth factor 20 (FGF20) has been shown to support dopamine-producing cells in the areas of the brain affected by Parkinson's. And previous studies in rats have shown that direct infusion of FGF20 into the brain can protect nerves from damage.

But growth factors, like GDNF and FGF20, are large proteins that can’t naturally cross the blood-brain barrier, so getting them into the areas of the brain where they are needed would require invasive and expensive surgery.

A new approach

Dr Susan Duty and her team wanted to see whether they could use drugs to encourage brain cells to make their own FGF20, without the need for invasive treatment.

Using computer software, the team looked at the properties of 1,261 approved medications to pinpointed 16 suitable drugs that could cross into the brain and potentially boost the natural levels of FGF20.

Further tests showed that 11 did increase FGF20 levels - and 4 of these were then taken forward to test in a rat model of Parkinson's.

Of these 4, salbutamol and triflusal were both seen to increase FGF20 levels in the rat brains and reduced the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells, the type of cell affected by Parkinson's.

Dr Beckie Port, Research Manager at Parkinson's UK, said:

"This is exciting early research showing that existing drugs have the potential to protect brain cells from damage. As these drugs have already been developed and tested in people, this may mean they become available more quickly, easily and cheaply.

"However, more testing is needed, both in animal models and in human clinical trials, before we will know if salbutamol or triflusal are effective treatments for Parkinson's."

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Drug repurposing is a promising way to find new treatments for Parkinson's. 

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