Special worms win over mice as Parkinson's drug tool

Scurry away, mice. Genetically altered worms may be a far better option for testing new Parkinson's disease treatments, scientists from The University of Texas at Austin believe.

In fact, they see C. elegans worms mutated to not produce dopamine as a cheaper way to test a greater number of potential Parkinson's drugs in a shorter amount of time. Details were published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Mice are typically used as test subjects for Parkinson's drugs. But they're a pricey option, in part because scientists need to wait a few years for them to age. This only makes it possible to test a few dozen drugs per mouse at a time, the researchers note. But what if you can test 1,000 drugs a year? Lead researcher Jon Pierce-Shimomura believes the specialized worms will make it possible (along with vital help from a few graduate students).

The process--at least for scientists--sounds relatively simple: An attempt to create conditions similar to those in Parkinson's disease patients, whose brains don't produce enough dopamine and face increasingly debilitating symptoms such as shaking, rigidity and slow movement. Worms are also a great option, Pierce-Shimomura said, because they and humans share a similar genetic structure of their "dopaminergic systems."

First, researchers give their mutated worms a potential drug. If the creatures remain paralyzed, they try a different compound. But if the worms transition to crawling, researchers believe they are witnessing a potential drug breakthrough because the compound may have helped overcome the lack of dopamine (something that has already happened once with a drug indicated for another condition).

The research continues, thanks to a $3 million NIH grant.

- here's the scoop
- Check out the PNAS study