Parkinson’s is partly an autoimmune disease, study finds

June 22, 2017

International discovery: Professor Phillips was part the study that could lead to vital medical breakthroughs.

Researchers have found the first direct evidence that autoimmunity—in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues—plays a role in Parkinson’s disease, the neurodegenerative movement disorder.

The findings raise the possibility that the death of neurons in Parkinson’s could be prevented by therapies that dampen the immune response.

The study, led by scientists at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, was published  in the Advance Online edition of Nature.

Professor Elizabeth Phillips and Professor Simon Mallal, from the Institute for Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Murdoch University were involved in the provision, generation and interpretation of the immunogenomic data from patients’ samples in this study.

“This study provides unifying underlying mechanisms that support Parkinson’s disease as an autoimmune disease in humans that results from destruction of nerve cells by the patient’s own immune system,” Professor Phillips said.

“It is exciting that this will likely lead to important breakthroughs in novel targeted therapies for Parkinson’s disease in the future.

“The research in particular suggests that immune cells (T cells) from patients with Parkinson’s disease attack certain protein fragments that abnormally accumulate and are recognised as foreign (alpha-synuclein). This specific immune response in these patients was associated with their genetic immune make-up (HLA genes).”

In the study, the researchers exposed blood samples from 67 Parkinson’s disease patients and 36 age-matched healthy controls to fragments of alpha-synuclein and other proteins found in neurons.

They analysed the samples to determine which, if any, of the protein fragments triggered an immune response.

In particular, the immune response was associated with a common form of a gene found in the immune system, which may explain why many people with Parkinson’s disease carry this gene variant.

Researchers are now analysing these responses in additional patients, aiming to develop an immunotherapy which could help to ameliorate or prevent worsening symptoms in Parkinson’s disease patients.

The study, “T cells of Parkinson’s disease patients recognize alpha-synuclein peptides” can be read here.

See the latest news from Murdoch University here.

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