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Just as important as protecting healthy neurons is repairing or replacing nerve cells that have been damaged. The body produces a whole bath of trophic--or growth--factors that help cells develop. If the brains of Parkinson's patients could be fortified with additional trophic doses, many scientists believe, damaged neurons might be reawakened or repaired. While there is some thought in the medical community about engineering genes to churn out the substances, the pharmaceutical industry is taking a more direct approach.
Currently, Guilford Pharmaceuticals in Baltimore, Md., and Amgen in Thousand Oaks, Calif., are collaborating on a synthetic neurotrophic compound that can be taken orally and then travels to the brain, where it bonds with proteins in dopamine neurons. The tricky part is that most trophic molecules are too big to move across the miniscule blood vessels in the brain, so Guilford and Amgen are working on a smaller one that can get where it needs to go. The progress so far is promising. "We're in Phase 2 human trials now," says Dr. Craig Smith, president of Guilford. "Although we don't have results yet, if the drug proves safe and extremely effective in trials, it could be on the market as early as 2005."
Whether such an anti-Parkinson's potion is really so close at hand is unclear, but scientists are not waiting to find out. Other possible treatments under study include boosting antioxidants, which would protect brain cells from free radicals, highly reactive molecules that are by-products of oxidation; and blocking the body's production of compounds called excitatory amino acids, which can cause neuron damage. It's hard to say which, if any, of these treatments will succeed, but with science closing in from so many directions, it's possible that for the first time, Parkinson's disease may find itself on the run.