Weekly (science) recap: Back from the dead diseases and designer drugs

Nobel prizes for 2016 had been released last week, and while some may argue that the reluctance of the Nobel Foundation to expand its categories creates a two-tiered system in science, it doesn’t make these achievements any less amazing. It’s been awhile since UBC has had Nobel Laureates within its ranks, but it doesn’t mean the following works are any less awesome:

What was old is now new again: TB Edition

Tuberculosis (TB), is one of the deadliest infectious diseases in the world. Treatment can take anywhere from six months to two years, and are often associated with severe side effects. New treatment is continually in development, but studies have indicated that the cost of developing a new drug can go upwards of $500 million USD.

Thankfully, UBC researchers have shown that cephalosporins — antibiotics introduced in 1963 — can work against the bacteria in the lab. Even better, they become more effective when used in combination with pre-existing TB therapies. As cephalosporins are already clinically approved, moving from lab testing into clinical testing of treatments involving it will be easier, leading to better alternative TB treatment options that shorten the duration of standard TB therapies.

Parkinson’s and a village in Tunisia

[''] Illustration Julian Yu / The Ubyssey

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease characterized by tremors, soft speech and many more motor complications due to the decreasing levels of dopamine. Thinking and behavioural problems, and even dementia, also become common in the latter stages of the disease. There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s. The only available treatment only alleviates the symptoms and becomes less effective as the disease progresses, sometimes even causing unwanted complications.

The cause of the disease is still unknown, although it is generally believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. One genetic mutation is said to be responsible for a form of the disease and was found among inhabitants of Norwegian fishing villages, Berbers (an ethnic group in North Africa and Eastern Mediterranean) and Ashkenazi Jews.

UBC researchers, in collaboration with international colleagues, analyzed a Berber population in Tunisia and were able to identify variations in a gene as a key factor in disease onset. They suggest that variations in the particular gene may delay the appearance of symptoms by an average of 12.5 years by helping the brain adapt to the problems caused by the mutation. While this is not exactly a cure, the researchers think this discovery provides the community a much needed molecular insight into the disease that could hopefully allow for development of drugs to completely halt the disease’s progression.

One step closer to making designer drugs a reality

It is said that genetic variation could spell the difference between a drug being ineffective or potentially harmful. For example, while the practice of taking a patient’s genetic information to determine the efficacy of a drug has been done before, it’s usually done so for life-threatening diseases like cancer — until now.

A UBC-led pilot program showed the feasibility of using patient genotype to determine drug efficacy for common conditions such as depression, hypertension and diabetes. This was made possible by TreatGx, a made-in-BC software system that combines the patient’s genetic information with other usual details such as age, weight and blood pressure, and aids the physician in determining the optimal drug treatment.

Due to the success of the pilot program within the Lower Mainland, TreatGx will now be marketed through a UBC spin-off company.