Diabetes drug may help treat Parkinson's disease

March 2, 2006

It's hard to spell and pronounce, but it could improve millions of people's lives.

Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox on a 2005 tour of UW-Madison research facilities. Photo by Jeff Miller, UW Communications.

Pioglitazone (pie-o-glitta-zone) is a drug used to treat diabetes. Turns out it may also pack a punch against Parkinson's. Now it may be closer to clinical trials thanks to funding from The Michael J. Fox Foundation. In February, the foundation awarded one of 15 international Community Fast Track grants to three scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The grant will allow the researchers to use a drug already proven safe for treating Type II diabetes as a test drug to treat Parkinson's in primate models. Pioglitazone is already known to prevent dopaminergic nigral cell loss in mice. Dopaminergic cells lacking in the brains of Parkinson's patients cause the chronic tremors and other disabilities associated with the disease.

"We want to provide an innovative and simple alternative to prevent disease progression in Parkinson's patients," says Marina Emborg, senior scientist at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. "This research could develop a new class of compounds for treating Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative disorders. Since pioglitazone is already approved for therapeutic use, success in a primate model of Parkinson's would facilitate translation into clinical trials."

The current mainstay therapy for Parkinson's disease is the administration of drugs that mimic dopamine action, Emborg says. "Yet, as the disease progresses, these drugs lose efficacy, and disabling side effects appear. Several compounds aimed at preventing neuronal cell death have been proposed, but none have ultimately proved successful in the clinic."

Taken orally, pioglitazone has anti-inflammatory properties, protects against oxidative stress through activation of the Nrf-2 pathway, and has no major side effects, Emborg says. Along with Jeffrey Johnson, associate professor of pharmacy, and Joseph Kemnitz, professor of physiology, Emborg will examine the drug's neuroprotective benefits with the background knowledge that the hormonal imbalance found in diabetes may also contribute to cell degeneration in the brain. The incidence of diabetes and Parkinson's increases with age and may develop in the same patients.

The pioglitazone project and 14 other Community Fast Track awards will net a total of nearly $1.9 million over one year, with the possibility of supplemental funding if research teams meet certain one-year milestones and have a plan in place to address next steps.

"With Community Fast Track, the foundation casts a wide net for new ideas every year," said Deborah W. Brooks, foundation president and CEO. "By limiting initial grant funding to one year and increasing the focus on rapid deliverables, we've enhanced our ability to identify and quickly push forward the studies with the greatest promise to yield meaningful new therapeutic interventions."

Twelve national and local Parkinson's disease groups teamed together with the foundation to fund Community Fast Track 2005. Contributors to the program include the Parkinson's Unity Walk, The Parkinson Alliance, Inc., the Lawrence County Parkinson's Association, Parkinson Association of Northern California Sacramento, the Parkinson's Association of the Rockies and Parkinson's Resources of Oregon. Many are annual supporters of the program. Other past donors include the Parkinson's Disease Foundation and the National Parkinson Foundation. Launched in 2001, the Community Fast Track program has awarded approximately $15 million to support 86 research projects.

For more information, contact:
(608) 262-9714
The Michael J. Fox Foundation

J. Lenon