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Slowly, but Surely, Progress Is Being Made Against Parkinson's

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WebMD Health News

Oct. 17, 2000 (Boston) -- Parkinson's disease (PD) is an illness that progresses slowly, and so, it seems, have medical science's efforts at finding ways to fight it. Nonetheless, researchers at a national meeting of neurologists here say they are making steady, incremental gains in their battle against the disease.

One of the notable researchers attending the meeting -- Nobel laureate James D. Watson, PhD, who was a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA in the 1950s -- predicts that the answer may lie in the field of genetics. "Parkinson's is not an infectious disease, so it must therefore have a genetic basis," he tells WebMD.

Indeed, the latest news in the battle against Parkinson's involves genetics -- or at least gene therapy. German researchers speaking at the meeting Tuesday report that they have devised a gene therapy "cocktail" that appears to protect critical brain cells in mice with disabling conditions similar to PD in humans.

Theirs is one of several new studies describing promising, but still experimental, treatment approaches for Parkinson's. Up to 1.5 million Americans suffer from PD, which causes such symptoms as uncontrolled trembling, muscle rigidity, and a loss of the ability to control movement, according to the National Parkinson Foundation. Over time, people with Parkinson's may develop trouble walking, talking, or completing other simple tasks that involve movement.

Just this week, a study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in which Harvard School of Public Health researchers show that moderate consumption of caffeine may reduce the risk of developing PD for men, and possibly for women, too. In the study of more than 130,000 people, the men who consumed the most caffeine -- primarily in the form of coffee -- were least likely to get PD during their lifetimes. Women who drank one to three cups of coffee a day also appeared to be protected from Parkinson's, but the study seemed to show that drinking more than three cups a day was too much of a good thing for women.

This week also saw the release of a study showing that a new type of drug for Parkinson's appears to offer benefits over the standard therapy, levadopa. Levodopa, marketed as Sinemet or Atmet, is effective in delaying the progression of PD, but often causes severe side effects, including involuntary movements and restlessness. In the study, patients with early signs of PD who took the new drug -- Mirapex -- had a 55% reduced risk of developing movement problems, compared with patients taking levodopa. The findings echoed those of a Canadian and European study of a similar drug -- Requip -- that was published earlier this year.

The gene therapy study focused on cells that produce a chemical called dopamine. Parkinson's is caused by the progressive death of nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, which helps the central nervous system to control bodily movements. The researchers attempted to deliver to the mice's brains substances that could protect the dopamine-producing nerve cells from dying off, and ideally, help them keep pumping out dopamine as usual.

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