Back to Basics: Why Basic Research (and the Fava Bean) are Key to the Cure

research_vernaleo_beth_100x100Do you hope for new treatments for PD? At the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, we do. In fact, it’s the reason we exist. But how do we find them? And would you believe me if I told you the fava bean played an important role in the current gold-standard treatment for PD?

When we think of finding better PD treatments, we often think of clinical trials — the final stage of research before PD drugs come to market. But there’s a crucial step at the very beginning of the pipeline that makes new drugs possible — basic science.

Basic science looks at the building blocks of the brain, the cells and the chemical reactions that make it possible to walk, smile or even read a book. It also looks at what goes wrong when someone has PD. Often conducted in labs, it involves studying cells or animals to get a close-up view of how the brain works. Every drug approved by the FDA began with basic science.

Basic science is so important that PDF invests $4 million a year on it. In ‘Back to Basics,” we will show how basic science is helping PDF come closer to solving, treating and ending PD.

What Is Basic Science?

To understand basic science, let’s think about fixing something else, your phone for example. If your phone stopped working one day, how would you fix it? Think of all the parts that could be broken — the battery, the screen, or the computer chip, among others. It can only be fixed by someone who understands both what is broken, and how the phone should work normally.

The same is true in PD. Basic scientists ask: how does the brain work normally? And how is this system broken when someone gets PD? It is only after we answer these questions, that we can fix what is broken through treatments and hopefully, a cure.

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Basic science is at the very beginning of the PD drug pipeline (far left). Asking, “what is broken, and how should it work normally?” is the first step to identifying problems in PD, and then finding treatments to solve them.

How a Bean Helped us Find the Most Effective Medication for PD

Chances are good that you have probably taken levodopa at some point over the course of your PD. The drug helps to replace lost dopamine in the brain and was approved in the 1960s, with the help of scientists at the PDF Research Center at Columbia University. Since then, millions of people with Parkinson’s have been able to live better lives.

But how did scientists know that levodopa existed, and that it might help PD?

Well, science is all around us, and sometimes discoveries occur in the most unexpected places. Starting in 1910, basic scientists would set in motion scientific breakthroughs that would change PD treatment as we know it. In this case, the unexpected place was the fava bean!

Many plants and beans are interesting to scientists, because they contain chemicals which are thought to be therapeutic. Back in 1910, an Italian scientist first isolated the chemical levodopa from the fava bean, finding that the beans are a natural source of levodopa (the levels are NOT enough to be therapeutic in people – no need to eat any extra!). By isolating levodopa from the bean, scientists were then able to study it in its natural form and learn how it worked.

Over the next 50 years, basic scientists in PD added more pieces to the puzzle by asking the right questions — ‘how does the brain work normally?’ and ‘what goes wrong in PD?’ The answers brought them to a solution they didn’t realize was right in front of them — levodopa.

  • In 1938, basic scientists learned that levodopa can be made into dopamine with the help of an enzyme. But at that time, the importance of this discovery wasn’t understood because we didn’t know what dopamine did (it was first seen in the human brain in 1957).
  • In the late 1950s, basic scientists studied dopamine in animal brains and first uncovered its purpose — helping the body to move.
  • An important basic science experiment during the same time (the late 1950s) found that when animals with PD-like symptoms were given levodopa, their movement symptoms improved, and dopamine in the brain increased.
  • A key experiment in 1960 studying postmortem brains of people with PD showed scientists that there was a loss of dopamine in a specific area of the brain — the basal ganglia. This was the first demonstration of what goes wrong in the brain in PD.

After all of this basic science information came together, scientists realized — levodopa isn’t just an important part of a bean. It’s an important part of the brain.

The first successful clinical trial of levodopa was conducted in 1961, and the rest is history. Today, levodopa is made synthetically in the lab, before making its way to people with PD in the form of a pill, patch, or a pump.

But if it weren’t for that bean, and the curiosity of basic scientists, we might not have all the levodopa therapies we have today. Basic science paved the way, and PDF is confident that it will pave the way for more future therapies and one day the cure.

P.S.: this month only, your donations to PDF basic research will be matched, dollar-for-dollar, by the PDF Board of Directors and friends. Double your impact on PD research & see our progress here.

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