A NEW study programme funded by F. Hoffmann‐La Roche Ltd aims to understand the role of inflammation in the brain of people with Parkinson’s disease, with a view to identifying new treatments.

People with Parkinson’s disease are invited to join the new study that takes place in state‐of‐the‐art research facilities in Exeter and London.

The researchers hope to shed light on the mechanisms causing the disease, about which little is currently known.

Professor Marios Politis, who leads the research group at the University of Exeter, said: “Parkinson’s disease has a devastating impact on individuals and families.

"We urgently need to understand the cause, so we can find new treatments and improve outlooks. Our research programme has the double aim to understand more about what could be the cause of Parkinson’s disease, and to determine whether a medicine blocking a key part of local brain inflammation could be safe and beneficial for people with the disorder.

"If our results are positive, we would know much more about the mechanisms involved in the disease developing, so potentially helping us design new and better medicines.”

Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that causes slowness of movements, shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with balance and coordination. These symptoms usually begin subtly and gradually worsen over time. As the disease progresses, people may have difficulty walking and talking properly.

One theory about the cause involves local brain inflammation ‐ a state of activation of certain cells of the brain, called glia.

Generally, this is a healthy process because the activated glia produce some substances, which help clean up the brain from unwanted agents. However, when this process is continuous, it turns against the cells of the brain, attacking them and causing them to die, and possibly causing Parkinson’s disease.

Researchers believe that identifying the reasons for increased local brain inflammation may lead to new treatments that suppress the inflammation and decrease the damage to the brain.

The study will take a two‐pronged approach, involving two different clinical trials.

The first study, led by the University of Exeter’s Neurodegeneration Imaging Group, is a brain imaging study to test whether people with Parkinson’s disease are particularly susceptible to an induced temporary, mild state of local brain inflammation, and to measure the mechanisms involved.

The second study, involving the Royal Devon University Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, is an early‐stage multicenter trial of a new medicine by F. Hoffmann‐La Roche designed to block the activity of a specific mechanism, called inflammasome activation.

This mechanism is thought to be the key driver of increased local brain inflammation.

Dr Gennaro Pagano, Group Leader and Expert Medical Director at Roche, Honorary Associate Professor  at University of Exeter, and lead of clinical development of the new medicine, added: “This trial is extremely innovative and is testing a new approach to reduce brain inflammation and neurodegeneration, thereby aiming to slow down Parkinson’s disease progression.

"Thanks to its cutting‐ edge state‐of‐the‐art research facilities, the University of Exeter is uniquely positioned to deliver this study."

Secondary school teacher Tim Walker, from Somerset, is one of those involved in the first study. The long‐distance cyclist, 56, first noticed abnormalities with his movement in early 2020, before a tremor developed in his left hand.

His wife Liz is a doctor and suggested he saw a neurologist. Tim was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in December 2020. This year, he took ill health retirement from teaching, although still works as an examiner.

Tim decided to take part in research after his mother‐in‐law saw a TV report asking for participants.

He said: “Very little is known about Parkinson's and what causes it – and there have been very few recent advancements in drugs for the disease. So, any information researchers can get to find out what causes  it ‐ and therefore how they can help treat it ‐ is going to be beneficial.”

Tim knows that keeping physically and mentally active can help manage the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

He regularly hits the roads on his bike.

In the summer of 2022, he took on La Marmotte, a 100‐mile plus alpine ride from the Tour de France.

But while Tim says his wife, two daughters, and other family and friends are very supportive, he admits that Parkinson’s has impacted his life.

“It's probably made me slightly more withdrawn. It's hard being in social situations, especially if I don't know people and am meeting them for the first time. I find that quite difficult because I will be standing there shaking.”

He is confident that the trial will help others with the disease: “I'm optimistic that steps forward will be made as people understand more about Parkinson’s. Whether it's in time for me, I don't know.

"The drugs being trialed now are probably five or 10 years away from being available ‐ and by that stage it may be too late for me to avoid the worst consequences of Parkinson's. But I can do my bit to help now so hopefully someone else in years to come can benefit.”

Dr Heather Wilson, a member of the study team, added: “Without people coming forward to volunteer to take part in research, these studies would not be possible. We’re extremely grateful to the Parkinson’s community for dedicating time and effort to support research.

"We hope that both clinical trial programmes will help in finding solutions for all people affected, and their loved ones.”

People with Parkinson’s disease interested to know more about these studies, or wishing to volunteer, can contact the Neurodegeneration Imaging Group at: [email protected] .