Buck Institute study: Lithium may help halt progression of Parkinson's
Published Tuesday, June 28, 2011 4:00 am
by Jessica Bernstein-Wax

Buck Institute study: Lithium may help halt progression of Parkinson's

A two-year study of the effects of lithium treatment on Parkinson's disease in mice has given researchers at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging hope that the drug may halt brain damage in humans with the degenerative disorder.

The research found that lithium, the Food and Drug Administration-approved drug most commonly used to treat bipolar disorder, "profoundly prevents the aggregation of toxic proteins and cell loss associated with Parkinson's disease" in mice, Novato-based Buck Institute said in a statement.

"In the last couple of years, there's been kind of a growing body of data that suggests that lithium could have some neuroprotective effects," said Dr. Julie Andersen, the study's lead author and a Buck professor.

Other diseases lithium treatment may benefit include Alzheimer's, Huntington's and Lou Gehrig's, Andersen said. In addition, recent studies have suggested that the naturally occurring substance may extend life span, she said.

Parkinson's is an incurable neurodegenerative disorder affecting 1 million people in the United States. It causes slow movement, rigidity and tremor, and the likelihood of onset increases with age.

"We kind of reasoned that lithium by preventing aggregation of toxic proteins ... probably also would be efficacious in Parkinson's," Andersen said.

Andersen and her research team found mice responded well to doses "at the low end of the therapeutic range" a quantity unlikely to cause side effects including overactive thyroid and kidney toxicity.

"This is huge," Andersen said. "It's an FDA-approved drug. It's cheap. It's easily available. At the doses that we think would be used, there don't appear to be side effects. We're really excited about this."

The group is now doing preclinical research on dose level and other issues and hopes to raise funds for a clinical trial with humans as soon as possible, Andersen said.

Buck's study suggests doctors could use lithium to halt the progression of Parkinson's in patients already suffering from the disease. Researchers are working to identify biomarkers and Andersen says they're close which would identify people likely to develop the disease.

Those patients might be able to take lithium prophylactically, she said.

The drug might even provide relief in conjunction with stem cell transplants for patients with more advanced cases of Parkinson's, Andersen added.

Dr. William Langston, founder and CEO of the Parkinson's Institute and Clinical Center in Sunnyvale, called the findings "potentially very exciting."

"Anything that is effective in an animal model, that actually blocks cell death ... is always of great interest to us because the kind of holy grail in our field is finding something that halts or slows the disease's progression," Langston said.

Contact Jessica Bernstein-Wax at jbernstein-wax@marinij.com

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