Imagine a future without Parkinson’s disease

Posted on: August 27th, 2019

Wills, Trust and Probate solicitor Lindsay Taylor, discusses how technological advances can help with Parkinson’s disease though gene therapy

What is Parkinson’s disease?

The three main symptoms are tremors, bradykinesia (slowness of movement) and rigidity (muscle stiffness). There are other symptoms which fall into physical and cognitive/psychiatric (including dementia) categories and are not necessarily experienced by all people with Parkinson’s disease. Severity can be different for each individual with the development of symptoms being gradual and mild at first.

The majority of Parkinson’s disease cases have an unknown origin and are tentatively identified by researchers as having both environmental and genetic factors. The causes of Parkinson’s are still being investigated, but over the last 15 years, an increased understanding has shown that whilst it is rare to get Parkinson’s from a genetic mutation, it is possible. The findings of recent research have led to investigation into new treatments in the form of drugs and therapy.

Gene editing

Alongside investigating treatment for those with Parkinson’s disease, researchers are looking at ways of eradicating it altogether. Simplified, gene editing covers a type of genetic engineering where DNA is inserted, deleted, modified or replaced in a living organism. It is designed to target specific locations to control the change to the genome. The term ‘gene editing’ has in the past led to concerns of designer babies where parents are only concerned about desirable traits in their unborn children.

Thankfully, the reality has been somewhat different. Responsible and useful screening has been available for the past 50 years and has allowed expecting parents to investigate the likelihood of their child inheriting a serious family disease and increase the chance of avoiding birth defects. Some parents have found that a child has inherited such a condition but continue with the pregnancy in the full knowledge of what additional care their child might require. Forewarned is forearmed.

Such screening is used in IVF as a matter of course by checking embryos for disease to ensure the healthiest embryos with the best chances of survival are chosen.

Parkinson’s Researchers are looking at taking gene editing a step further, either;

  • Cutting mutated strands out of a DNA sequence; or
  • Introducing a modified/mutated strand to improve function

This is a simple explanation of complex and cutting-edge research, but it could have far reaching results. Researchers of Parkinson’s disease are looking at (amongst others) a possible resulting treatment of gene therapy whereby medicine is personalised to eradicate disease causing mutations in a living person.

Gene therapy

The next stage of development is a long lasting therapy for people suffering from enduring genetic defects, not just Parkinson’s disease. Gene therapy is the term for gene editing specifically used to treat or cure disease.

Current gene therapy is used to remove and replace the faulty allele in a person’s chromosomes with normal ones. At present, this is only allowed in body cells. There are moral implications to this and genetic interventions are heavily regulated. Any changes made to a person’s sex cells would be passed down to their children, hence why it is currently illegal. Conversely a person who has successful treatment of their body cells will still be at risk of passing on the faulty allele to their offspring.

It would not be straying too far into the realms of science-fiction to say that researchers are looking into increasing mental acuity and intelligence. Whilst there are always ethical concerns about how this would be used (think 1997’s Hollywood movie Gattaca) consider how such a medical advance could be used to help someone with Parkinson’s disease who is suffering from depression or dementia. Application could be early on to avoid these psychiatric symptoms ever developing or a therapy such as a pharmalogical intervention or deep brain electrical stimulation to moderate neurons.

Dementia itself is something that has many victims, not just the sufferer. I have the sad tale of having a loving grandfather turn into someone who no longer recognises his daughter or granddaughter and I am not alone. There are also practical implications of someone losing the capacity to understand their affairs. If a will or lasting power of attorney are not already in place, this can become an expensive and difficult endeavor for the family involving the Court of Protection. Whatever medical breakthroughs can and will happen in the future, do always think about the now and what would happen if your legal affairs are not in order whilst we look to the future for the ultimate eradication of terrible and life-changing diseases.

Lindsay Taylor is a solicitor in our Wills, Trusts and Probate team and sits on the Coffin Mew Tech Sector.  If you would like any help or advice on making Lasting Powers of Attorney or Wills, please contact Lindsay or the Wills, Trust and Probate team who will be happy to help.