An enduring fascination with the brain, and the desire for answers and solutions for his patients living with Parkinson’s, motivates Dr. Philippe Huot in his Parkinson’s research. As a Movement Disorder Neurologist at the Centre Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal, he understands how patients and their families struggle with dyskinesia and hallucinations, two of many Parkinson’s disease complications.
Dr. Huot recently completed two research projects funded by the Parkinson Canada Research Program. The first is a two-year, $89,984 New Investigator Award and the second is a $45,000, one-year Lawrason Foundation Pilot Project Award. His early results have been so promising that he and three colleagues have received a three-year, $1.4 million research grant from the Weston Brain Institute to continue this research.
Huot began these investigations by studying hallucinations, a form of psychosis that affects up to 60 per cent of people with advanced Parkinson’s. These frightening experiences sometimes lead to a person needing specialized attention and ultimately living in long-term care.
“It’s a very important problem that has serious detrimental impact on patients and their caregivers’ quality of life,” says Huot. “One patient I met had visual hallucinations and when she tried to grab something she thought she saw on the stairs, she fell and injured herself quite badly.”
Although there are other forms of psychosis, hallucinations are the most common manifestation in Parkinson’s disease, so patient samples were available for study, explains Huot.
He measured the levels of a protein that regulates glutamate, in post-mortem tissue samples from the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease (PD). He then compared them to samples from the brains of people who did not have Parkinson’s disease. Glutamate is an amino acid in the brain that transports signals from one brain cell to another.
He then observed the impact of psychosis-like behaviours in monkeys when modulating glutamate and blocking specific serotonin receptors at the same time. Huot demonstrated that this treatment combination was effective in reducing such behaviours.
“Basically we identified a new target and a new method to alleviate psychosis and proceeded to apply it to dyskinesia in another research project, with similar results,” says Huot. “We found that two very different conditions – psychosis and dyskinesia – could be alleviated in a similar way.”
One of the biggest challenges in treating Parkinson’s disease is finding ways to reduce dyskinesia, the involuntary movements most people eventually develop as a side effect of being treated with levodopa. Levodopa is the medication that reduces or controls stiffness, tremors and rigidity in people with Parkinson’s.
“For some people, dyskinesia can be really debilitating,” says Dr. Huot. “They cannot write. They have trouble eating. They have trouble getting dressed. It can be really disturbing and undermine their quality of life.”
Huot treated monkeys similarly to the way he had for psychosis to observe the impact on dyskinesia. The results were similarly encouraging – the approach effectively alleviated dyskinesia.
Huot will submit abstracts on both research projects for the Movement Disorders Society conference to be held in June 2017 in Vancouver, British Columbia and for the Society for Neuroscience conference to be held in November 2017 in Washington D.C. He has also presented his research findings to his colleagues at The Neuro in Montreal.
Huot is grateful for the funding he received from the Parkinson Canada Research Program. “It is very difficult to get that first research grant,” he says. “The funding I received from Parkinson Canada has been critical. It launched my research program. I could not have pursued this research without the investment from Parkinson Canada and its donors.”
The results from his Parkinson Canada-funded projects also made it possible for him to successfully apply for and receive a substantial $1.4 million grant from the Weston Brain Institute to continue his research.
“I hope that we will have drug treatments to alleviate psychosis and dyskinesia from Parkinson’s disease in clinical trials within the next five to six years,” says Huot.
And while Huot’s research is focused on new treatments to improve the quality of life for people living with Parkinson’s, he agrees that all research that expands our knowledge of the disease advances the search for a cure.
“Until then, I am pleased to be making a contribution to help the patients I see every day in the clinic and offer them hope for an improved quality of life.”