Public Release: 

Gene therapy for Parkinson's disease to be tested by Pitt, UPMC experts

University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

PITTSBURGH, Feb. 22, 2016 - Experts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine are leading the second arm of a clinical trial using gene therapy to relieve the symptoms of tremor and mobility impairment in patients with Parkinson's disease. The technique shows promise in prolonging the effectiveness of levo-dopa, the mainstay treatment for the progressive neurodegenerative condition, by increasing production of a key enzyme essential to convert the drug into the neurotransmitter dopamine.

An estimated 7 to 10 million people worldwide have Parkinson's disease, which is caused by degeneration of dopamine-producing neurons, said Mark Richardson, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of neurological surgery, Pitt School of Medicine, and director of Epilepsy and Movement Disorders Surgery at UPMC. Levo-dopa can replace the deficient dopamine for a while, but eventually the drug loses effectiveness, and subsequent increases in dosage may cause disabling side effects.

"Less dopamine is made as the neurons degenerate, and one reason is that there is a decrease in an enzyme needed to turn levo-dopa into dopamine," said Dr. Richardson, who is the principal investigator of the Pitt arm of the trial. "By inserting the gene for this enzyme into cells in a specific part of the brain, we hope to make levo-dopa treatment more effective for a longer period of time."

In the gene therapy, a harmless virus called adeno-associated virus-2 is used to carry the gene that makes the enzyme - aromatic L-amino acid decarboxylase (AADC) - into neurons. Once in the neurons, cellular machinery kicks into gear to increase production of the AADC enzyme.

To deliver the treatment, Dr. Richardson will make a small hole in each side of the patient's skull to insert a thin catheter into the putamen, a brain region that is an important part of the circuit affected by Parkinson's disease. After the gene therapy is infused over several hours, the catheter is withdrawn and the skull is repaired.

Different infusion doses will be tested during the course of the study. Up to 20 participants at two sites, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, will be followed for up to three years to have their disease and medication status reassessed.

The principal investigator of the trial, which is sponsored by Voyager Therapeutics, is Krystof Bankiewicz, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, who also led an earlier trial that showed the gene therapy can be safely administered.

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Individuals between 40 and 70 who have had Parkinson's disease for more than five years and have been taking levo-dopa for at least three years may be eligible to participate in the trial. For more information, contact Patricia Porter, B.S., at 412-648-8983 or Porterpm2@upmc.edu.

About the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

As one of the nation's leading academic centers for biomedical research, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine integrates advanced technology with basic science across a broad range of disciplines in a continuous quest to harness the power of new knowledge and improve the human condition. Driven mainly by the School of Medicine and its affiliates, Pitt has ranked among the top 10 recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health since 1998. In rankings recently released by the National Science Foundation, Pitt ranked fifth among all American universities in total federal science and engineering research and development support.

Likewise, the School of Medicine is equally committed to advancing the quality and strength of its medical and graduate education programs, for which it is recognized as an innovative leader, and to training highly skilled, compassionate clinicians and creative scientists well-equipped to engage in world-class research. The School of Medicine is the academic partner of UPMC, which has collaborated with the University to raise the standard of medical excellence in Pittsburgh and to position health care as a driving force behind the region's economy. For more information about the School of Medicine, see http://www.medschool.pitt.edu.

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Contact: Anita Srikameswaran
Phone: 412-578-9193
E-mail: SrikamAV@upmc.edu

Contact: Gloria Kreps
Phone: 412-586-9764
E-mail: KrepsGA@upmc.edu

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