Gene Therapy in Parkinson’s Disease
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Parkinson’s disease is the second most common age-related neurodegenerative disorder, typified by the progressive loss of substantia nigra pars compacta dopamine neurons and the consequent decrease in the neurotransmitter dopamine. Patients exhibit a range of clinical symptoms, with the most common affecting motor function and including resting tremor, rigidity, akinesia, bradykinesia and postural instability. Current pharmacological interventions are palliative and largely aimed at increasing dopamine levels through increased production and/or inhibition of metabolism of this key neuro transmitter. The gold standard for treatment of both familial and sporadic Parkinson’s disease is the peripheral administration of the dopamine precursor, levodopa. However, many patients gradually develop levodopa-induced dyskinesias and motor fluctuations. In addition, dopamine enhancement therapies are most useful when a portion of the nigrostriatal pathway is intact. Consequently, as the number of substantia nigra dopamine neurons and striatal projections decrease, these treatments become less efficacious.
Current translational research is focused on the development of novel disease-modifying therapies, including those utilizing gene therapeutic approaches. Herein we present an overview of current gene therapy clinical trials for Parkinson’s disease. Employing either recombinant adeno-associated virus type 2 (rAAV2) or lentivirus vectors, these clinical trials are focused on three overarching approaches: augmentation of dopamine levels via increased neurotransmitter production; modulation of the neuronal phenotype; and neuroprotection. The first two therapies discussed in this article focus on increasing dopamine production via direct delivery of genes involved in neurotransmitter synthesis (amino acid decarboxylase, tyrosine hydroxylase and GTP [guanosine triphosphate] cyclohydrolase 1). In an attempt to bypass the degenerating nigrostriatal pathway, a third clinical trial utilizes rAAV2 to deliver glutamic acid decarboxylase to the subthalamic nucleus, converting a subset of excitatory neurons to GABA-producing cells. In contrast, the final clinical trial is aimed at protecting the degenerating nigrostriatum by striatal delivery of rAAV2 harbouring the neuroprotective gene, neurturin. Based on preclinical studies, this gene therapeutic approach is posited to slow disease progression by enhancing neuronal survival. In addition, we discuss the outcome of each clinical trial and discuss the potential rationale for the marginal yet incremental clinical advancements that have thus far been realized for Parkinson’s disease gene therapy.