Parkinson’s Disease—An Unexpected Ravage of COVID?

Thus, (tho, ‘tis Life’s great Preservation) many oppose Inoculation.

-Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1737

SARS-CoV-2 and its disease, COVID, are very strange. They have given us black toes, lungs like chocolate pudding, long-term fatigue, depression, death, and vaccine deniers. It has been quite a ride. And we are learning that having COVID also puts one at risk for other non-COVID maladies…like chocolate pudding lungs was not enough!

In previous posts, I wrote about the clear link between new-onset type 2 diabetes arising in many patients following COVID. There also is suspicion that cancer might increase down the road due to CoV-2 inactivation of a cellular gene that puts a brake on cancer, P53, in COVID patients. Inactivate that gene and you release the brake on certain cancers. Therefore, there is concern that some COVID patients will experience an elevated incidence of cancer in the future.

New research now raises a real concern that COVID patients might also be at increased risk for developing Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s arises when neurons deep in the brain that produce a critical neurotransmitter, dopamine, begin to die off leaving a dearth of this critical chemical that sends signals between neurons. It is like cutting a phone wire. Crucial communications cease.

The study conducted in collaboration between scientists from Weill Cornell Medicine, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons was published in Cell Stem Cell last January. Investigators took human induced pluripotent stem cells and coaxed them to become brain cell progenitors that could form into human brain organoids in tissue culture. Such small, nascent “brain-like” structures contain a variety of functional neural cells. They were exposed to the CoV-2 virus, which was shown to preferentially infect and selectively cause the dopamine-producing cells to shut down.

While brain autopsies of COVID patients have not revealed direct COVID infection, they have found unique gene patterns associated with cell senescence, which was especially profound in areas rich in dopamine-producing neurons. This also supports the notion that COVID disease contributes to neurological problems that could cause Parkinson’s disease.

Putting these two findings together is complicated at this time, but they strongly suggest a direct involvement for one or more mechanisms resulting from CoV-2 infection in causing the myriad neurological symptoms that have been seen in COVID patients, and maybe other neurological problems like Parkinson’s not yet attributed to COVID.

Bottom line: CoV-2 is a nasty bug and COVID is a nasty disease. It seems that getting vaccinated not only protects you from nasty flu-like disease and death, it can also protect you from the following:

  1. long COVID
  2. type 2 diabetes
  3. maybe cancer
  4. and now, maybe Parkinson’s disease

Why would anyone not want to avoid these? Get the shots!

Interesting addendum: The studies showing that CoV-2 virus can selectively infect dopamine producing neurons went a step further. They also tested a large panel of drugs already approved for other health problems to see if any could unexpectedly protect these critical cells from infection. Sure enough they found three drugs that protected the neurons: Riluzole (used to treat Lou Gehrig’s disease) Metformin (commonly prescribed for diabetes management), and most interesting to me, Imatinib, or Gleevic (used for treating certain leukemias and cancers).

I say this is interesting to me because of my own research beginning at UCLA in the mid-80s, and extending to the University of Wisconsin into this century. My research focused on certain leukemias that carry a specific chromosome abnormality that appears in 99% of patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), and in fewer patients with acute lymphoblastic or acute myeloblastic leukemias (ALL and AML respectively). When I began studying this, the presence of this chromosome aberration was a death sentence. There was no effective treatment. Patients did not survive long. We identified the specific genetic abnormality, cloned the abnormal gene, sequenced it and found it was parts of two genes stuck together. Most importantly, we also described the enzymatic pathway in cells that it screwed up. All this eventually led to the development of a drug that tamed the misbehaving enzymatic pathway so that now >95% of patients with these diseases are fully cured with medicine that is pretty easy to tolerate. What once was a death sentence is now an easily treated disease. Knowing that makes me feel pretty good.

The drug that cures leukemia patients from what once was a lethal disease is called Imatinib; one of the drugs found to also protect dopamine producing neural cells from CoV-2 virus destruction.

That too will make me feel pretty good if it also happens to prevent neurological problems in COVID patients. Who would have guessed? This is the unpredictable way science often works.