Ashkenazic Jews may be linked through gene mutations to Parkinson’s disease and now researchers are investigating new therapies.
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By Ruthan Brodsky
Researchers know mutations to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, increasing a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer, are more common among Ashkenazic women than women in the general population.
“Today, researchers are investigating another gene mutation, this time related to Parkinson’s disease (PD), which may also be linked to the Ashkenazic population,” says Peter A. LeWitt, director of Parkinson’s disease research at Henry Ford Hospital and neurology professor at Wayne State University School of Medicine.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous disorder that affects movement. Symptoms start gradually, often with a slight tremor in one hand, and then become worse as the patient’s condition progresses. Although PD can’t be cured, some medications may significantly improve its symptoms. Doctors may also suggest surgery to improve symptoms by regulating certain regions of the brain.
The cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, but many researchers believe it is caused by a combination of factors, some based on genetics and others more influenced by environmental factors. However, because not everyone who carries these genetic mutations will get Parkinson’s, it is thought other factors such as the environment (pesticides) and age (usually around age 60 or older) play an important role. Also, more men develop PD than women.
“Over the past decade, researchers have identified a handful of genes in which genetic mutations greatly increase the risk,” LeWitt says. “The most common is the mutated version of kinase 2 (LRRK2), which is responsible for 1-2 percent of PD cases but is much higher in people with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.”
Pharmaceutical companies are interested in this gene because it produces an enzyme called a kinase — dozens of drugs that inhibit the activity of kinases have been approved in the last 30 years, primarily for cancer. Drug developers started working on inhibiting overactive kinases in neurodegenerative and infectious diseases. One concern with this approach is the possible side effects from inhibiting LRRK2.
“Today, there is no diagnostic test for PD and no way to stop or slow its progression,” says Dr. Aaron Ellenbogen, movement disorder specialist at QUEST Research Institute in Farmington Hills. “Quest has been researching Parkinson’s disease for more than 15 years, frequently conducting clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies regarding their development of new drugs.
“Based on the knowledge that people don’t respond to medical treatments the same way, a new approach, called tailored medicine, emphasizes treating people with certain conditions using personalized plans,” Ellenbogen says.
It is thought that up to 15 percent of Ashkenazi Jewish patients with PD may carry one or more of the gene mutations that increase the risk of acquiring the disease.
Current research is investigating new therapies for PD patients with these gene mutations. This personalized medicine could have benefits for everyone with PD. QUEST Research Institute is currently enrolling for one of these trials, testing people with PD for free if they have Ashkenazi heritage or family history.
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