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The Quest to Find Treatments for Parkinson’s Disease

A deep dive into Professor Susan Duty's research

Susan Duty is a Professor of Pharmacology and Neuroscience and the Co-Head of the Department at Wolfson Centre of Age-related Disease at King's College London. Her research focuses on understanding and finding improved treatments for Parkinson’s, which is the second most common neurodegenerative condition.

Professor Susan Duty

I am Gargi Mandal, a research assistant at the Stress, Psychiatry and Immunology lab, and an editor at Inspire the Mind. Prof Duty was one of my lecturers during my undergraduate studies, and she always encouraged us to think innovatively and ask questions, whilst ensuring that we honed the fundamental pharmacological concepts. However, it was only during her inaugural lecture, which was a wonderful account of her personal and professional life, that I discovered that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer a year before she taught my cohort. I was inspired by her tenacity to keep moving forward in the midst of personal challenges, and I wanted to know more about her research experience and career path. I would like to share our conversation with you.

We started by talking a bit more about Parkinson’s, which affects approximately 145,000 people in the UK, as per 2020 estimates. Its prevalence is on the rise and 1 in 37 individuals alive today in the UK will be diagnosed with Parkinson's in their lifetime. Moreover, there is currently no cure for Parkinson’s and available treatments cause various side-effects. Thus, there is a strong drive to develop new treatment approaches. This is the focus of Professor Duty’s work.

Parkinson’s is characterised by the presence of both motor symptoms, namely resting tremor, rigidity, stooped posture, and slow movement; and non-motor symptoms, such as fatigue, memory, and thinking (cognitive) impairments, depression or anxiety, sleep problems, and pain.

Pain is a specific area of Prof Duty’s research. Prevalent in up to 80% of individuals with Parkinson’s, pain may be caused by increased inflammation in the brain. Damage to the nervous system triggers the release of inflammatory mediators, which normally fight pathogens, but in people with Parkinson’s, these mediators may alter regions of the brain that control pain signaling and can be the underlying trigger for a variety of pain states. Indeed, a recent study by Prof Duty’s lab showed that the levels of an inflammatory cytokine, Tumour Necrosis Factor-alpha, were increased in people with both Parkinson’s and pain.

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Furthermore, Parkinson’s is a progressive condition, meaning that it becomes more severe with time, and an active area of research for Prof Duty is finding treatment approaches that slow or stop the progression of Parkinson’s by protecting neurons of the Substantia Nigra (a dark region in the brain which modulates movement and reward functions). In Parkinson’s, there is a substantial loss of cells in this region and one avenue of hope in Parkinson’s research is by targeting certain receptors or increasing cell survival factors (factors that help cells grow and promote normal cell development), to prevent cell death, thereby slowing the progression of the disease.

Professor Duty’s team has contributed to this area of research, specifically by targeting metabotropic glutamatergic receptors (mGlu4Rs, which are highly concentrated in the substantia nigra) to reduce cell death. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, and when present in large amounts, it can be toxic to neurons and increase cell death by increasing calcium inside the neurons. Prof Duty’s team demonstrated that stimulating the mGlu4Rs resulted in reduced glutamate release and decreased cell death in rat models. These rats also had good motor outcomes in comparison to the rats where the mGlu4Rs were unstimulated and had fewer/no side effects, showing that activating the mGlu4Rs directly in the brain protected the loss of neurons in the substantia nigra. There are ongoing clinical trials in which drugs that target these mGlu4Rs are being tested in humans.

In addition, Prof Duty’s research has also shown that increasing survival factors, such as fibroblast growth factor, which are cell signalling mediators that promote normal cell development, help to protect cells in a dish and cells in the substantia nigra of animal models from toxin-mediated cell death. This further contributes to the hope that such research may lead to new drug developments that could help to slow the progression of Parkinson’s and improve patient quality of life.

Prof Duty’s impact is not limited to her research. She is also an exceptional educator and has received Teaching Excellence Awards from King’s College London and the British Pharmacology Society in recognition of her innovative education. Her dedication to teaching is inspiring; Prof Duty would go above and beyond her research interests in her commitment to teaching and reading extensively about the field of Parkinson’s. This informed her holistic view of Parkinson’s treatment benefiting both her research and teaching, and I have personally benefited from her comprehensive lectures which enabled me to get a well-rounded understanding of the field.

As a person who dons many hats, including researcher, teacher, mother, and mentor, I wanted to ask how Professor Duty remains motivated. Throughout her career, she has taken inspiration from students, mentors, and her own children. Indeed, it is impressive that she has such a successful career alongside parenting. During her daughters' formative years, being in academia provided her with some flexibility, allowing for a suitable work-life balance. Furthermore, Prof Duty stated that she is encouraged by the positive changes that have occurred in academia which enable more mothers, like her, to pursue a career in research. However, she recognises that more changes are required including improving support for women returning from maternity leave. Indeed, supporting and recognising the value of women in STEM, such as Prof Duty is essential to allow them to continue to make such invaluable contributions.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Professor Duty has inspired me to not shy away in the face of new challenges and to say yes to opportunities that come my way. The barriers she has faced and overcome in her career demonstrate her dedication to research. It is essential to have role models, such as Professor Duty, for women in STEM, to help foster a sense of belonging for other researchers and to inspire the next generation of scientists.

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