UCSB researchers and a Northern California-based pharmaceutical company may hold the key to the cure for Parkinson’s disease.

Six years ago, UCSB researchers Don Anderson and Lincoln Johnson teamed up with Titan Pharmaceuticals to discover why a drug called Spheramine, which the company produces, helps reduce the negative effects on motor skills associated with Parkinson’s disease. Titan Pharmaceuticals currently produces Spheramine as a therapeutic treatment for the degeneration experienced by Parkinson’s patients, though the company has not yet figured out exactly how the drug works. Anderson and Johnson, who started the Center for the Study of Macular Degeneration (CSMD) six years ago, are helping Titan figure out this medical mystery.

The Center is currently working with Titan to find the molecular basis of Spheramine’s therapeutic effects. Retinal Pigmented Epithelium (RPE) cells in the eye produce Spheramine and these RPE cells nourish nearby photoreceptors – specialized neurons – in the brain by producing the neurotransmitter dopamine. In Parkinson’s patients these specialized neurons degenerate and lead to the loss of dopamine and therefore a loss of control over motor functions, a key characteristic in Parkinson’s patients.

UCSB’s CSMD researchers are now helping Titan characterize the gene expression profile of the RPE cells to be implanted into the brains of advanced Parkinson’s patients in an attempt to make evident the molecular mechanism that causes the drug’s desired therapeutic effects. They are working to determine exactly which genes in RPE cells are expressed to produce dopamine.

In a recent study, Titan and collaborating neurologists found that upon implanting RPE-based Spheramine into advanced Parkinson’s patients, the motor functions of those patients improved, showing the effectiveness of their product.

In the future of CSMD’s RPE cell research, Anderson sees improvement and progress towards the goal of discovering RPE cell therapy’s molecular basis. “The goal,” he said, “is really to make rapid progress in areas we think are important.”

Fellow CSMD researcher Johnson agreed. “Within five years, I would like to have a model of the disease in the lab,” he said. “Then we can begin testing specific drugs to retard the disease or inhibit its progression.”