University of Sheffield scientists awarded more than a million to develop revolutionary Parkinson's drug

Scientists from the University of Sheffield have been awarded £1.2 million to develop a drug that will help slow down the progression of Parkinson’s Disease.

The drug works by protecting dopamine-producing brain cells. Dopamine is a chemical which allows messages to be sent to the parts of the brain that help to coordinate movement.

To do this effectively, the dopamine-producing brain cells need to be constantly active and they rely on mitochondria to function properly.

Any disruption could lead to dysfunction and degeneration of the brain cells and eventual cell death. Parkinson’s is what happens when those cells die.

A scientist is pictured working (Photo by Steve Parsons / POOL / AFP) (Photo by STEVE PARSONS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

A team of world-leading researchers at the University of Sheffield’s Institute of Translational Neuroscience (SITraN), led by Dr Heather Mortiboys, has been working with experts from Parkinson’s UK to develop molecules that can boost the function of the brain’s energy-producing mitochondria to halt the degenerative disease - something no treatment can currently do.

Dr Mortiboys, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield’s SITraN, said: “Two more people are diagnosed with Parkinson's disease every hour – that's 18,000 people every year. Causing a loss of physical movement and uncontrollable tremors, the disease will affect 145,000 people in the UK alone in 2020.

“We’re delighted to continue our work with Parkinson's UK to refine these promising molecules to develop a treatment that could stop Parkinson’s in its tracks.

"The team has identified not only molecules which can restore mitochondrial function in dopaminergic neurons from people with Parkinson's, but also a novel mechanism by which they do this.

“We’re progressing both a novel mitochondrial therapeutic target and novel molecules which act upon this target.

"The aim is to have a lead molecule which is active at the mitochondrial target, can restore mitochondrial function in dopaminergic neurons derived from people with Parkinson’s and is able to get into the brain in a whole organism.”

The new project will bring together biology and chemistry experts from the University of Sheffield, Parkinson’s UK and world-leading contract research organisations to further develop the modified molecules.

Using cells from people with Parkinson’s, this innovative team will investigate how the molecules work and what protein(s) they interact with inside brain cells. This next stage of the project aims to develop a drug-like molecule with good efficacy in cellular models of Parkinson’s.

This would then allow future work to take place to assess the effectiveness of this approach in animal models before moving into clinical trials in people with Parkinson’s.

The funding comes from Parkinson’s UK via the charity’s Virtual Biotech initiative, which is fast-tracking the development of new treatments for people with Parkinson’s.

Dr Arthur Roach, Director of Research at Parkinson's UK, said: "Looking back, it’s incredible to see how this project had its origin in a small academic grant from Parkinson’s UK to screen for molecules that rescue defective mitochondria inside neurons.

“This new funding will greatly accelerate the project and shows our commitment to working with ground-breaking academic researchers in the UK and taking their discoveries from the lab towards clinical trials.

"There is a desperate need for new and better treatments and we hope this project will one day deliver a life-changing drug for people living with the condition.”