Updated 14 December 2016

Cancer drug shows promise for Parkinson's disease

Researchers have found that a cancer drug may be helpful in improving memory and motor skills in patients with Parkinson's disease.

A cancer drug may be helpful in improving memory and motor skills in patients with Parkinson's disease, according to preliminary research

The trial at Georgetown University involved 12 people who had Parkinson's disease or a related condition called Lewy body dementia.

Toxic proteins in the brain

All 11 who completed the trial using the drug nilotinib – marketed by Novartis as Tasigna, which has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for leukaemia – showed improvements in movement and mental function by the end of the study, according to the findings presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago.

Read: Aspirin can prevent Parkinson's disease

For some, the gains were dramatic, particularly those who were treated early in the course of their disease. One person who had been confined to a wheelchair was able to walk again, researchers said. Three others regained their ability to speak and hold conversations.

"To my knowledge, this study represents the first time a therapy appears to reverse – to a greater or lesser degree depending on stage of disease – cognitive and motor decline in patients with these neurodegenerative disorders," said a statement by researcher Fernando Pagan, a Georgetown University associate professor of neurology.

"But it is critical to conduct larger and more comprehensive studies before determining the drug's true impact."

Read: Gene therapy effective for Parkinson's disease

The drug appears to work by clearing toxic proteins in the brain.

Patients were given nilotinib, a treatment for chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), in escalating doses of 150 to 300 milligrams over the course of six months.

Costly drug

The doses used were much smaller than the amount used to treat cancer – which is up to 800 mg daily – and patients experienced no major side effects.

Read: Diabetes tied to Parkinson's disease 

The study was designed to test safety, and did not compare the drug to other treatments or to a placebo.

The drug is costly, however. The 800 mg daily dose used for cancer treatment costs $10,360 per month, according to the researchers.

Larger clinical trials with nilotinib for patients with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's could begin as early as 2016.

Read more: 

Statins may prevent Parkinson's disease  

Brain stimulation for Parkinson's disease  

Depression may precede Parkinson's 


Ask the Expert

Cancer expert

CANSA’s purpose is to lead the fight against cancer in South Africa. Its mission is to be the preferred non-profit organisation that enables research, educates the public and provides support to all people affected by cancer. Questions are answered by CANSA’s Head of Health Professor Michael Herbst. For more information, visit

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules