A drug used to treat leukaemia has been shown to improve cognitive function and physical movement in patients with advanced Parkinson’s disease.
In dramatic scenes reminiscent of the Robin Williams film Awakenings, in which a drug was used to awaken catatonic patients, one wheelchair-bound patient was able to walk again.
Others regained the ability to speak or were able to enjoy pleasures such as reading a book once more after taking the drug during a study.
The drug, called nilotinib, has been used in the past to treat patients with a certain type of leukaemia. But in a small clinical trial in the US, 12 people with Parkinson’s disease or a similar condition called “dementia with Lewy bodies” were given small doses of nilotinib for a six-month period. This had startling results.
Dr Charbel Moussa, who led the study at Georgetown University Medical Centre in Washington DC, said: “We’ve seen patients at end stages of the disease coming back to life.
“We had people as stiff as a board at the start of the study who were walking around, sitting down and bending their legs by the end.”
Three patients regained the ability to talk, one was able to walk again and another could feed herself once more.
One patient, retired lecturer Alan Hoffman, said: “Before nilotinib, I did almost nothing around the house. Now, I empty the garbage, unload the dishwasher … I read a book for the first time in a couple of years. My wife says it is life-changing.”
Nilotinib works by boosting the ability to clear out proteins which accumulate in the brain cells of people with Parkinson’s disease. These proteins are believed to trigger the death of brain cells which make molecules like dopamine needed for movement and other functions.
But despite the apparent striking effects, doctors have cautioned against great expectations for the drug at this stage as there was no control group or placebo used in the study for comparison.
Professor Carl Clarke, of Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “It seems too good to be true. I dearly hope I am wrong.”
Professor Kallol Ray Chaudhuri, from King’s College London, agreed, saying: “If it can really reverse Parkinson’s, we’d have reached a major milestone, but I’m sceptical.
“I would say ‘watch this space’,” he added.
Larger clinical trials with nilotinib for patients with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s could begin as early as 2016.