Nilotinib and Links between Leukemia and Parkinson's

Could Parkinson disease and leukemia have more in common than previously thought?.

Parkinson disease affects the brain and nerve cells and typically causes problems with muscle movements; leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the bone marrow and blood. Parkinson disease is extremely rare in children; while leukemia is the most common cancer of childhood. How could these two very different diseases possibly have anything in common?

Well, people with Parkinson's and people with leukemia certainly have a lot in common -- the burden of dealing with their disease.

Medically, however, the scientific literature also offers a few leads that may be of interest to those looking for common ground between these two illnesses.

Leukemia Drug Appears to Reduce Parkinson Symptoms

Tasigna (nilotinib) is a drug approved to treat certain kinds of leukemia. Based on a very small group of study participants, nilotinib appears to reduce symptoms in people who have Parkinson disease with dementia or Lewy body dementia.

According to an NPR report, a trial of 12 patients who were given small doses of nilotinib found that movement and mental function improved in all of the 11 people who completed the six-month trial. Researchers reported these findings at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago. A very small study, it was not designed to measure effectiveness and there was no accounting for the placebo effect. Still, these findings were extremely interesting and will spur more robust research.

Nilotinib belongs to a group of drugs known as kinase inhibitors. More specifically, nilotinib is an inhibitor of the BCR-ABL kinase. Kinases and another group of enzymes, GTPases, are not only implicated in neurological disorders, but they have also been associated with various other human diseases including cancer and inflammatory conditions.

While the drug was not designed for Parkinson disease, it is not scientifically unthinkable that it might have an unintended  beneficial effect in this disorder.

Contaminated Drinking Water Linked to Both

A study published in the August 2014 issue of the journal “Environmental Health,” made use of the fact that some of the drinking water at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, had been contamination by solvent during 1950s-1985. A group of researchers studied the affects of this accidental exposure by comparing causes of death among workers at Camp Lejeune with Camp Pendleton, where the water was clean.

It is challenging to sort out cause and effect when looking backwards, and results from this type of study are interpreted with caution. However, in this study, there appeared to be greater hazard of death involving a variety of illnesses, including kidney cancer, leukemia, myeloma and Parkinson’s disease among the workers who had been exposed at Camp Lejeune.

Exposure to Pesticides Linked to Both

Most cases of Parkinson disease and leukemia are believed to develop in a way that is multifactorial, potentially with a number of different environmental exposures and many different genes involved.

To study the development of such diseases with respect to one factor, and to do so looking backwards in time is particularly challenging. Nonetheless, there is support for a link between pesticides, herbicides and toxins and both leukemia and Parkinson’s disease. According to a study in the May 2013 issue of the journal “Neurology,” the scientific literature supports the hypothesis that exposure to pesticides or solvents is a risk factor for Parkinson's, but more research is necessary to prove a cause and effect relationship. Paraquat (paraquat dichloride, or methyl viologen), for instance, is an herbicide that has been implicated as a risk factor for Parkinson's disease.

Likewise, a group of researchers in Costa Rica attempted to study the relationship between parents who had been exposed to pesticides and the risk of childhood leukemia in their children. While they could not exclude the possibility of no effect for many of the categories they analyzed, they did see a trend for increased risk of childhood leukemia with pesticide exposure – especially a mother’s exposure to pesticides during the first and second trimesters of pregnancy.


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NPR. Can A Cancer Drug Reverse Parkinson's Disease And Dementia? Accessed October 2015.

Hong L, Sklar LA. Targeting GTPases in Parkinson’s disease: comparison to the historic path of kinase drug discovery and perspectives. Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience. 2014;7:52.

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