Breaking the Parkinson’s bottleneck
SUNNYVALE, Calif.—A new collaborative effort between the renowned Parkinson’s Institute and Massachusetts-based pharmaceutical company Berg Pharma aims to unlock critical information about Parkinson’s disease that could speed the development of new therapies and diagnostic methods.
This partnership brings together two natural allies in the fight against Parkinson’s disease. The Parkinson’s Institute has deep expertise and an international reputation as a stand-alone institution focused entirely on researching and treating the disease. Berg Pharma brings to the table its trademarked Interrogative Biology platform, which it will use to analyze the mountain of data the Parkinson’s Institute holds in its numerous lines of cells and tissue samples that it has been collecting for nearly 30 years, making it one of the largest collections of its kind in the world.
“This is perhaps the most aggressive, robust relationship to date to unite a wealth of knowledge in combination with a platform to illuminate the data,” says Niven Narain, president and chief technology office of Berg Pharma.
The goal of the collaboration is to identify biomarkers—characteristics of cells that can be objectively measured—that correlate to the progression of Parkinson’s disease in cells. The inability to identify objective indicators that mark the disease’s processes at the cellular level has been a major bottleneck on the road to developing breakthrough therapies. Instead, current treatments must focus on alleviating Parkinson’s symptoms, which do not typically manifest themselves until the disease has progressed relatively far, and can be measured only subjectively.
In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires quantifiable measurements that demonstrate an experimental drug’s effectiveness. This means that garnering FDA approval for any pharmaceutical therapy designed to treat Parkinson’s disease will be exceedingly difficult until objective, measurable biomarkers are discovered and can be shown to be positively impacted by treatment.
What makes this collaborative project stand out among contemporary Parkinson’s research is its attempt to scan across multiple dimensions simultaneously in order to isolate changes that appear in diseased cells.
“Typically a researcher investigates one particular aspect of the cellular biology,” says Parkinson’s Institute Chief Operating Officer Clyde Taylor. “[The Interrogative Biology] process provides a wide set of ways to look at multiple cellular processes at the same time and analyze them together.”
“Currently there is a high dependency on genomics,” says Narain. “People are looking for clear cause-and-effect relationships, and they’re simply throwing out the failures. But what if you have two conflicting datasets or your science lies outside of the well-known literature?”
The Interrogative Biology platform uses artificial intelligence and algorithms to establish linkages among multiple data sets that include not only genomes, but also proteomes, metabolomes and lipidomes. The platform compares these ‘omes among cells in a healthy as well as a diseased states in the hopes of identifying the outliers that represent the signatures of Parkinson’s disease processes in cells. The result of running the Parkinson’s Institute’s extensive assortment of tissues and cell lines through the Interrogative Biology platform will be a massive collection of new data, which may hold the key—or at least a good clue—to understanding and ultimately treating a disease that has so far remained enigmatic and unyielding.
“The greatest success we can hope for through this process is to open a window to the cell that will allow us to some day diagnose and treat Parkinson’s disease before physical symptoms manifest,” Taylor says.
Aside from sharing mutual interest in unlocking Parkinson’s disease, this collaboration was facilitated by the personal acquaintance between Berg Pharma’s founder, Carl Berg, and the Parkinson’s Institute’s founder and Parkinson’s research pioneer, Dr. William Langston. Berg is also a prominent member of the Silicon Valley community where the Parkinson’s Institute is located. The two have long discussed areas of potential collaboration, and now appear to have found a project that brings both organizations’ strengths and expertise to bear.
Both groups find a degree of freedom in the fact that neither is federally funded, allowing them to collaborate more liberally and with fewer restrictions. The Parkinson’s Institute credits the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine for a substantial portion of its funding.
“We are two like-minded institutions intensely focused of finding key factors in the disease’s pathophysiology,” says Narain.
“Being nimble, entrepreneurial and innovative are the keys to unlocking this disease,” adds Taylor.