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A Setback on the Road to a Parkinson's Cure

A new study casts doubts on what looked like a promising treatment
Actor Michael J. Fox participates in a panel discussion in 2007
Actor Michael J. Fox participates in a panel discussion in 2007Photograph by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

One of the most promising treatments for Parkinson’s disease has hit a snag after researchers found evidence that it may make patients worse. ELN, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, NeuroPhage Pharmaceuticals, and Prana Biotechnology are all developing drugs that target a protein that appears in large concentrations in the brains of those afflicted with the progressive neurological disorder. The foundation started by actor Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991 at age 30, has poured more than $47 million into research on the protein.

While a variety of medicines relieve symptoms such as tremors, there is no treatment to halt the disease’s progression. Since the late 1990s, several drug companies have experimented with techniques to reduce levels of alpha-synuclein, the main component of protein clumps called Lewy bodies that are found in people with Parkinson’s. Affiris, based in Vienna, last year started the first clinical trial for a vaccine that lowers levels of alpha-synuclein.