DNA changes and Parkinson’s disease

Investigation of epigenetic clock in Parkinson’s Disease and rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorders

Dr. Paulina Gonzalez Latapi
Clinical Fellow
University Health Network
Clinical Movement Disorder Fellowship
$50,000 over 1 year

One of the puzzling things about Parkinson’s disease is how some genes appear to change their function, altering the health of cells.

DNA methylation is one of the processes that causes these genes to change their activities. It occurs when atoms derived from methane are added to a DNA segment, altering genes not only for one generation, but for subsequent ones.

At Toronto’s University Health Network, Dr. Paulina Gonzalez-Latapi is combing these alterations in DNA for clues that could eventually change Parkinson’s disease treatments.

Gonzalez-Latapi, a neurologist, is using a statistical model to chart the relationship between people with an inherited form of Parkinson’s disease that is caused by a mutated form of the LRRK-2 gene, and the way their motor and cognitive symptoms progress.

She’ll match people whose blood samples show signs of DNA methylation with changes in their symptoms, over time.

She’s trying to determine if the changes to genes are causing people’s bodies to age faster than their chronological age.

“What we are trying to study is whether this DNA methylation change is causing this aging of the cells, and whether that is also associated with disease progression in Parkinson’s disease.”

“What we are trying to study is whether this DNA methylation change is causing this aging of the cells, and whether that is also associated with disease progression in Parkinson’s disease,” she says.

Gonzalez-Latapi is also assessing the interplay between genes and environmental factors that could trigger Parkinson’s disease.

If she can establish the connection between the DNA changes and the way people’s symptoms evolve, “then in the future we could link this to certain medications and perhaps have a new avenue of treatment for people with Parkinson’s disease,” she says.

Gonzalez-Latapi is pursuing this research project while spending her second year as a fellow at the University Health Network’s renowned Movement Disorders Clinic. She was drawn to the fellowship from Mexico, because of the opportunity to work with Dr. Anthony Lang and other expert physicians.

At the clinic, she treats patients and learns more about all aspects of Parkinson’s disease, including the non-motor symptoms she finds fascinating.

She’s also involved in a second research project to study the genetic variations in an enzyme that breaks down levodopa, the main medication used to treat Parkinson’s. Genetic changes to that enzyme may be the reason people’s response to levodopa fluctuates over time.

Although the research projects are important, Gonzalez-Latapi is particularly appreciating the opportunity to learn more about deep brain stimulation and other methods of alleviating the stiffness, slowness and tremors that affect people with Parkinson’s.

Building close relationships with her patients is one of the aspects of the fellowship she enjoys the most, she says.

In the future, Gonzalez-Latapi wants to investigate the way Parkinson’s disease and its treatment affects diverse populations.

“Most of the research right now done in Parkinson’s disease is done in the Caucasian population and there is fewer research on minority groups,” she explains.

How your support made this research project possible

Parkinson’s disease is the second-most common neurodegenerative disease in the world, and given our aging population, it will only become more common, Gonzalez-Latapi says.

“Research is, for me a crucial aspect of neurology and of the practice of medicine. We’ve made great advancements in our understanding of Parkinson’s disease in the last few years, but there are a lot of things that still need to be understood better.”

“We need to build on the momentum we have in trying to understand this disease better and to come up with better treatment options.”

Levodopa has been around since the 1970s, and “it’s time for the next breakthrough,” she says.

“The only way we will achieve that is to have the resources to pursue research in this area.”

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