IT is a disease that affects one in every 375 adults living in Scotland, but for the first time in decades researchers feel optimistic that a cure for Parkinson's could be possible.

"This is a very exciting time," said Dr Esther Sammler, one of dozens of scientists and clinicians based at Dundee University who are helping to unravel what causes the neurogenerative disorder - and how to treat it.

She is taking part in an talk today, organised as part of the Royal Society of Edinburgh's 'Curious' strand of events, which will showcase Dundee's "quest to cure" Parkinson's and where the latest research has led.

READ MORE: The landscape for Alzheimer's is changing - but can the NHS cope?

To date the only medications available to patients are ones which can ease symptoms, such as muscle stiffness or tremors, but there is nothing that can stop or reverse the progress of the disease.

Like Alzheimer's - which has seen a flurry of breakthrough drugs emerge from clinical trials in the past year alone - there is now hope that Parkinson's could experience a similar turnaround within the next five years.

"Right now, we have lots of things that can help with the symptoms of Parkinson's but nothing that would change the underlying disease cause," said Dr Sammler.

"There have been lots of trials over the last decades and our understanding of the complexity of Parkinson's has really increased.

"Advances in identifying genetic contributors - the genetic mutations that cause Parkinson's or significantly contribute to its development - has helped us to unravel pathways where something goes wrong in the cell, and that knowledge has been used to leverage drugs targets.

"The exciting thing is that these drug targets are now in clinical trials."

READ MORE: Dundee scientists create world-first 'micro placenta' in lab

In April this year, Dundee became the first site in the UK join a major global Parkinson's trial led by US-based Biogen and Denali Therapeutics to test the safety and efficacy of a new drug - the uncatchily titled BIIB122 - which it is hoped can slow the progress of the disease.

The drug, known as a small molecule inhibitor, is designed to block the effects of mutations in a gene called LRRK2.

These are the most common genetic mutations associated with Parkinson's, but the significance of LRRK2 only came to light as a result of years of "painstaking" work led in Dundee by Professor Dario Alessi.

Enrolling the first Dundee-based patient into the trial was a "full circle" moment for the team, but it will be roughly three years before the results are known.

It is also unclear whether the Dundee volunteer received either a placebo or the actual drug.

The Herald: Prof Dario AlessiProf Dario Alessi (Image: University of Dundee)

Worldwide, around 400 Parkinson's patients - all with LRRK2 mutations - are being recruited and randomised into the Lighthouse study, with an evaluation period of up to 180 weeks.

"It's not like we're 10 years away - we are hoping to have results within the next two to three years," said Dr Sammler, who is the principal investigator for the Dundee arm of the trial.

"Obviously then there will be more questions about how do we convert it into a treatment, but I do think that this is such an exciting time. We will be able to do something about it. I'm optimistic."

Around a dozen genes have now been linked to an increased risk of Parkinson's thanks to a huge upsurge in research investment over recent years.

READ MORE: Is the future of medicine prescribing 'good' bacteria? 

A second avenue for research at Dundee are mutations in the PINK1 gene, which compromise the function of cell "batteries" known as mitochondria. Work on drugs to counteract this by boosting cellular function is "really promising", said Prof Alessi.

There is also growing interest in the interplay between the gut and the brain - people with inflammatory bowel disease, for example, are more likely to develop Parkinson's - but exactly what the mechanism is, and how it might be converted into a preventative treatment, remains unclear.

The Herald: Hollywood star, Michael J Fox - who has Parkinson's disease - has been a major driver of investment into new researchHollywood star, Michael J Fox - who has Parkinson's disease - has been a major driver of investment into new research (Image: Getty)

For Prof Alessi - who has gone from being the sole Parkinson's researcher at Dundee in 2004 to overseeing a team of around 40 researchers today - the landscape has been transformed thanks to the likes of the Michael J Fox Foundation, which pours hundreds of millions of dollars every year into research.

He said: "When I started in 2004, it was practically impossible to get any funding for Parkinson's - there wasn't a single person in Dundee that was working on 'research.

"People would say to me 'you're crazy to work in this area because there's no one to work with, there's no funding, you'll never cure this disease'.

"At the time all the money was going into cancer, diabetes and immunological conditions - there was virtually nothing on Parkinson's disease.

"The change in investment means that a lot more scientists able to get into the field, and that has encouraged very interactive and collaborative research.

"Our knowledge has increased maybe 100-fold in the last 20 years, and because of that there's so many new ideas and ways to treat Parkinson's disease."