Hubert Yin, CU-Boulder chemical and biochemical associate professor and researcher. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

CU team takes on challenge of Parkinson’s

BOULDER — Police officers fight crime and protect us from harm – but occasionally, as recent news headlines can attest, a cop overreacts and inflames a problem instead of solving it.

The same thing happens in the human body.

Specialized immune cells called microglia, essentially police officers for the brain and nervous system, patrol their environment, protecting the neurons that send messages back and forth between your senses and your brain, but also looking for anything that seems out of place such as inflammation. Occasionally, though, those little cops overreact, causing damage by introducing inflammation in areas where it should be controlled instead.

That’s one way Parkinson’s disease wreaks havoc.

More than 1 million people in the United States suffer the progressively worsening tremors, stiffness and impaired coordination of Parkinson’s. The degenerative disorder remains incurable, but a team led by the University of Colorado Boulder may have found a compound that can protect the brain and central nervous system from damage from the disease.

“This is exciting for us,” said Hang Hubert Yin, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at CU’s BioFrontiers Institute. “We are suggesting an entirely new strategy for treating Parkinson’s disease – one that we think will be more effective, and one with a potential drug that patients may access in the future.”

Yin’s team is focusing on pattern-recognition cell receptors on the surface of the microglia that have evolved to identify danger to the cells and trigger an immune response. They’re called “toll-like receptors,” and the body has at least 10 of them.

The Jennie Smoly Caruthers Biotechnology Building at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado)

Yin said the drug, CU-CPT22, acts on two of the receptors to keep inflammation at bay and magnify the body’s immune responses, which could be a new strategy for treating not only Parkinson’s but also other conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The barrier between the brain and bloodstream, good at keeping out anything bad, also keeps out many drugs that might be helpful. To date, drug candidates have been unable to penetrate the barrier because of their large molecular size.

Enter Yin’s research at CU.

“Our drug molecule is small enough to penetrate the membrane that protects the central nervous system,” Yin said. Using the High-Throughput Screening facility at BioFrontiers, he said, “we screened thousands of synthetic compounds to find the low enough molecular weight.”

It’s been the mission of Yin and his team, he said, to take the drug “from bench to bedside to technology transfer.”

The drug has been tested on rats and mice, Yin said. “We’re in the very early stage of development. The Technology Transfer Office at CU helps us advocate.”

Brynmor Rees, senior licensing manager at the tech-transfer office, said CU holds the intellectual property rights to the drug, which recently was licensed to life-science and biotechnology companies EMD Millipore, based in Billenca, Mass., and Bristol, United Kingdom-based Tocris Bioscience for development and research. According to a CU media release, the research was supported by a Parkinson’s Movement Disorder Foundation grant as well as funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Rees, who has helped Yin commercialize several of his inventions over the years, wants more.

“We’ve licensed the drug for academics,” he said, “but we’re trying to find partners who will not only use it for research but for actually developing a Parkinson’s treatment. It’s a long and difficult road. It could be anywhere from eight to 15 years before patients can have access to this treatment” given the Food and Drug Administration’s lengthy trial and approval process, “so the challenge is to find that early partnership. Hopefully, the research these companies are doing can generate the basis for this kind of commercial partnership.”

Dallas Heltzell can be reached at 970-232-3149, 303-630-1962 or dheltzell@bizwestmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DallasHeltzell.

BOULDER — Police officers fight crime and protect us from harm – but occasionally, as recent news headlines can attest, a cop overreacts and inflames a problem instead of solving it.

The same thing happens in the human body.

Specialized immune cells called microglia, essentially police officers for the brain and nervous system, patrol their environment, protecting the neurons that send messages back and forth between your senses and your brain, but also looking for anything that seems out of place such as inflammation. Occasionally, though, those little cops overreact, causing damage by introducing inflammation in areas where it should be controlled instead.

That’s one way Parkinson’s disease wreaks havoc.

More than 1 million people in the United States suffer the progressively worsening tremors, stiffness and impaired coordination of Parkinson’s. The degenerative disorder remains incurable, but a team led by the University of Colorado Boulder may have found a compound that can protect the brain and central nervous system from damage from the disease.

“This is exciting for us,” said Hang Hubert Yin, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at CU’s BioFrontiers Institute. “We are suggesting an entirely new strategy for treating Parkinson’s disease – one that we think will be more effective, and one with a potential drug that patients may access in the future.”

Yin’s team is focusing on pattern-recognition cell receptors on the surface of the microglia that have evolved to identify danger to the cells and trigger an…