Parkinson's disease vaccine opens up new vista for medicine, U.S. health care debates

An article in the LA Times reports that the Austrian pharmaceutical company AFFiRiS A.G. has begun conducting clinical trials for a (first of its kind) therapeutic vaccine to treat Parkinson's disease.

The vaccine works by stimulating the production of antibodies that inhibit a protein called alpha-synuclein, which is thought to kill brain cells in the substantia nigra section of the brain. Developers hypothesize that an over-abundance of alpha-synuclein in the brain eventually results in the symptoms associated with the disease (impaired movement, tremors, and ultimately death).

The safety and effectiveness of the vaccine remains to be determined, but developing an effective vaccine for Parkinson's disease that slows or prevents disease progression would represent an enormous advance for Parkinson's patients, and it would validate a powerful new approach for treating expensive and debilitating chronic neurological diseases.

As we've discussed on the blog previously, the evolving paradigm in medicine rests on new treatments - including therapeutic vaccines, regenerative medicines, and gene therapy - that hold out the hope of not just slowing the progression of disease, but (eventually) restoring healthy function to patients by attacking disease at its molecular and genetic roots.

If successful - and there is no doubt that this research will be incredibly challenging, and proceed by fits and starts - it may be able to radically lower health care costs by reducing the enormous (and expensive) labor and infrastructure associated with caring for Americans with degenerative neurological diseases. (Just like Salk's polio vaccine made polio wards in hospitals and iron lungs obsolescent virtually overnight.)

All the more reason, then, to ensure that America remains the global leader in biotechnology, and that we develop and maintain regulatory, research, and reimbursement paradigms that encourage innovators to take the enormous scientific and financial risks required to validate and bring new therapies to market.

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