FYI Daily

New Parkinson's Research Focuses on Genetics

Last updated:

April 12, 2012
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Wondering what Parkinson's researchers are doing these days? It turns out that they're spending a lot of time looking into genetics.

That's partly because Parkinson's is a complex disease. While most people with Parkinson's have so-called "idiopathic Parkinson's" (translation: "your doctors have no idea why you have it"), in others it seems to be linked to environmental factors, like exposure to Agent Orange and other chemicals. In still other people, it seems to have a genetic link.

Since it's presumably difficult to get funding for a study that involves spraying people with Agent Orange and seeing if they later develop Parkinson's, researchers are looking at people with family histories of the disease.

In particular, a mutation on the LRRK2 gene can raise a person's Parkinson's risk from one percent to fifty percent -- but even that doesn't explain why some people with the mutation develop Parkinson's and other don't.

In a recent blog post, Todd Sherer, CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation, Brian Fiske, vice president of research programs at The Michael J. Fox Foundation, and Emily Drabant, research manager for the Parkinson's community at 23andMe, a leading personal genetics company, explain some of the genetic-related advances in Parkinson's research.

Here are some highlights:

  • A new study suggests that the immune system's inflammatory response in the brain might contribute to Parkinson's. Scientists speculate that the LRRK2 mutation might lead to an increased inflammatory response -- which might contribute to a variety of different health problems. (LRRK2 mutations have also been linked to Crohn's Disease and leprosy.)

  • People with the LRRK2 mutation have problems with the process of autophagy, where cells clean out junk protein that they don't need. Scientists aren't sure whether this contributes to Parkinson's or is an effect of it, but they're looking into it.

  • Comparing people with genetic Parkinson's to people with idiopathic Parkinson's is also pretty interesting. It turns out that people with the LRRK2 mutation who develop Parkinson's may have milder symptoms than in idiopathic Parkinson's. On the other hand, people with the LRRK2 mutation have an increased link to non-skin cancers. Scientists aren't sure what to make of either of these findings yet, but they're working on it.

  • Since only about half of the people with the LRRK2 mutation develop Parkinson's, scientists want to know what protects the other half of the population. Last year, scientists at 23andMe used their open research study of people with Parkinson's to find a correlation between people with the LRRK2 mutation who don't have Parkinson's and a mutation on another gene called SGK1. That second mutation might have a protective effect against Parkinson's, and researchers at Scripps are working to find out if they can target that gene to treat people who do have Parkinson's.