A NEW drug that would slow the onset of Parkinson's disease could be ready for human trials within four years after scientists in Dundee signed a multi-million pound development deal with a Korean pharmaceutical giant.

Researchers believe that their groundbreaking enzyme-based treatment would be so effective at delaying the progress of the disease that it will become a chronic condition that patients could live with long-term, instead of a degenerative condition that becomes steadily worse.

More than 12,400 people in Scotland are already living with Parkinson's disease and 1500 new cases are diagnosed every year.

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Comedian Billy Connelly was diagnosed in 2013, and boxing legend Muhammad Ali died in 2016 after a long fight with the disease.

Dr Julie Brady, business development manager at Dundee University's Drug Discovery Unit (DDU), said: "We call it a disease-modifying treatment. No one really understands exactly what causes Parkinson's disease so it's difficult to say that we could provide a complete cure.

"The way that we're pitching this is that it would really slow down the progression of the disease so that it makes it something people can live with, as opposed to being something that gets progressively worse."

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The DDU will begin work on the project from August 1 after securing three years' worth of funding from Seoul-based Bukwang Pharmaceutical Company.

The funding cycle is expected to take the drug up to a late pre-clinical stage, with one additional year of development anticipated before human trials could get underway.

Dr Brady added: "There should be a drug ready for human testing within a year of us completing - so within four years, it could go into clinical trials.

"Then it will be a number of years going through the clinical trials process.

"So we're a good bit away from having a drug that's available for market."

Parkinson's disease is the world's second most common neurological disorder, after Alzheimer's disease.

As the brain becomes increasingly damaged, sufferers develop tremors, slow movement, muscle stiffness and difficulty speaking.

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The potential for a new drug is a direct result of groundbreaking work led by DDU scientists in collaboration with Dr George Tofaris at Oxford University.

Although it is unclear exactly what triggers Parkinson's disease, a key recent discovery has been the role of a protein in the brain called alpha-synuclein.

The development of the disorder is characterised by the build-up and mis-folding in the brain of these proteins, which can kill nerve cells.

Research at Oxford University has shown that an enzyme, USP8, prevents the natural breakdown of alpha-synuclein.

Working with Dr Tofaris, the DDU team has identified a series of drug-like molecules that block USP8 from functioning.

If these can be successfully converted into drug, doctors would be able to prescribe a treatment for the first time that significantly reduces the build-up of alpha-synuclein in newly-diagnosed Parkinson's patients - thus slowing the disease's progress.

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Dr Simon Stott, deputy director of research at The Cure Parkinson’s Trust, said: "This is exciting news for multiple reasons: first, it demonstrates the enormous international effort being made by the Parkinson's research community, and highlights UK expertise in that collaborative exercise.

"Second, a drug targeting this enzyme, USP8, would represent an entirely new approach to potentially treating Parkinson's.

"Third, in addition to possibly providing a new class of treatment, a better understanding of how this enzyme functions in the context of Parkinson's could have important implications for our knowledge of the biology of the condition."

Dr Beckie Port, research manager at Parkinson's UK, added: “Finding treatments that target the alpha-synuclein protein holds promise for one day slowing or stopping the progression of Parkinson’s - something no current treatment can do.

“It's an exciting time for Parkinson's research. Our increased understanding of the biology of the condition means we're now at a stage to turn our wealth of knowledge into much-needed treatments for people with Parkinson's."

It is believed to be the first time that Bukwang Pharmaceutical has invested in drug research at a UK university.

The DDU is unique because it is professional drug discovery group sitting within an academic institution.

It also works across a wide range of diseases while other centres tend to be focused on one particular area, such as cancer.

Dr Brady said: "We can really focus on the conversion of academic discovery science into something that could become a future medicine, and we're one of the very few UK organisations that can do that."

Professor Paul Wyatt, head of the DDU, said they were delighted by the investment.

He said: "Drug discovery for neurological disorders is especially challenging and an area where academia and industry need to be working together.

"This project brings together the clinical and translational research expertise in Oxford with Dundee’s professional drug discovery capabilities allowing us to move one stage further towards a treatment.”

Hee-Won Yoo, CEO of Bukwang Pharmaceutical, said: “Bukwang Pharm has a firm focus on research and development and a real commitment to innovation in drug development.

"We are very impressed with the DDU’s depth of expertise and track record and are pleased to be able to include the University of Oxford in this new partnership.”