Patients and proteins push Parkinson’s professor

I'm hoping there will be a treatment for Parkinson's in our lifetime," says Dr. Edward Fon. / Photo: Owen Egan
I'm hoping there will be a treatment for Parkinson's in our lifetime," says Dr. Edward Fon. / Photo: Owen Egan

By William Raillant-Clark

Although April is Parkinson’s month, Canadians were perhaps paying more attention to the disease earlier this year, when a clip of Michael J. Fox silently sliding across the ice in Vancouver was beamed repeatedly into our homes. Poetic, heroic, and also rather frightening, the Olympic advertisement subtly reminded us that Parkinson’s disease could attack almost anyone of us without warning. However, Dr. Edward Fon, neurologist and Director of the McGill Parkinson Program, is improving our understanding of who may be at risk and is making major contributions to research that will one day enable us to treat the cause of the disease.

Approximately 100,000 Canadians have Parkinson’s. It’s a vicious neurodegenerative disease that attacks the brain’s production of dopamine, a vital chemical that enables us to make smooth, co-ordinated movements. The disease generally affects people around the age of 60, but it can strike at any age. No one yet knows what causes it, but Fon has uncovered some significant clues.

The number of people affected and the mystery surrounding the disease led Fon into this field. “It seemed like an interesting challenge and also one that offered the potential to have an impact by helping many, many patients,” he said. “Of the neurology diseases, Parkinson’s is one that has special appeal to me, firstly because it’s a common disease causing suffering to a lot of people, and secondly because the treatments available treat the symptoms, not the cause.”

The human aspect of Fon’s work is extremely important to him. He boasts that McGill’s Parkinson’s program is one of the few in the world that offers “bedside to bench” care, meaning that the research ranges from basic molecular work through to the clinical treatment of the 1,000 patients involved in the program. “I feel very privileged to work in an environment like we have here at the Montreal Neurological Institute, because it allows me to do clinical and research work in a way that would not be possible in other places. Very few people able to be clinical researchers, it’s a great privilege and really inspiring,” he said.

Over the course of his career, our understanding of what Parkinson’s is has greatly changed. “Fifteen years ago, most scientists did not believe that genetics played a role,” Fon said. “Today, we know of five genes that are related to Parkinson’s, and there are about another five that are still unknown.” Making this link to genetics does not offer an immediate solution to finding treatments for the disease, but it does enable a strategy for treatment to be developed.

Indeed, Fon and his colleagues achieved a major breakthrough this year. They were the first to discover a molecular link between Parkinson’s disease and defects in the ability of nerve cells to communicate. Mutations in the parkin gene are responsible for a common inherited form of Parkinson’s disease and are involved in the degradation of other proteins. The team found that parkin binds to a protein that is key to nerve cell communication. The discovery of this molecular link has opened up a whole new set of potential treatment targets.

He points out that only 10 per cent of Parkinson’s patients have defective genes (otherwise known as gene mutations), but they’re studied precisely because of their particularity. Analyzing what genes aren’t doing correctly provides clues about how they should be functioning normally. “Identifying the genes has offered us some molecular targets that allow us to screen drugs and treatments, to develop drugs that get to the real core of the problem rather than just treating the dopamine,” Fon explained. “I’m hoping there will be a treatment for Parkinson’s in our lifetime.”