Searching for a cure for Parkison’s at Ichilov
For decades, professors Nir Giladi and Avi Orr-Urtreger of Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center have harbored a seemingly impossible medical dream. They have been on a mission to prevent the onset of Parkinson’s disease and to arrest the progress of the disease for those who have contracted it. Now, according to the pair, this goal is finally within reach.
Giladi, chairman of the hospital’s Neurological Institute and professor of Neurology at Tel Aviv University, has been researching the causes of Parkinson’s since 1990. Orr-Urtreger, director of the Medical Center’s Genetics Institute, and professor of Pediatrics and Genetics at Tel Aviv University, who holds both MD and PhD degrees and who conducted research in medical genetics at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, joined forces 12 years ago with Giladi. In the course of their research, they made a startling discovery, which has turned Israel into one of the world’s leading areas for the study of Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease, a chronic, degenerative disease of the central nervous system, affects the parts of the brain that are associated with movement and balance. Symptoms can include tremors or shaking of the hand or other limbs while at rest, as well as rigidity and increased tone in the body’s muscles. Body movements are slowed, and patients can have difficulty maintaining balance. Currently, there is no cure, and treatments are directed at reducing symptoms.
Giladi and Orr-Urtreger discovered that there is an association between Parkinson’s and a gene mutation found in Ashkenazi Jews. Ashkenazi Jewry is considered genetically homogeneous, because they have stayed together as a group, marrying within, and remaining as a separate group for more than 1,000 years. As a result, explains Orr-Urtreger, “Ashkenazi Jews are an excellent model to learn genetics.”
Giladi says that due to the large number of Jews of Ashkenazi descent in Israel, “there are many more Parkinson’s patients in Israel than in other Western countries. Until recently, Parkinson’s was not considered a ‘Jewish’ disease. We are beginning to look at it as a Jewish disease.” There are approximately 25,000 Parkinson’s patients in Israel today.
GILADI AND Orr-Urtreger succeeded in establishing the world’s largest cohort of patients with genetic Parkinson’s, due to known mutations in the LRRK2 and the GBA genes, in the general Ashkenazi sector of the population in Israel. “There are about 250,000 people in Israel that carry this genetic mutation as a possible cause for Parkinson’s,” says Giladi. “This makes Israel a very interesting place for research, and makes it possible to understand how the disease develops.” Adds Orr-Urtreger, “What we learn here can be for the benefit of the entire world.”
PROF. AVI ORR-URTREGER, director of Ichilov’s Genetics Institute and professor of Pediatrics and Genetics atTel Aviv University.