ELEANOR HALL: Australian researchers have found a way to reduce the debilitating side-effects of schizophrenia drugs, which can cause tremors and shaking.
Researchers at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Science say dialling down the protein which causes the symptoms instead of blocking it completely is a more effective approach.
Stephanie Smail reports.
STEPHANIE SMAIL: About 230,000 people are affected by schizophrenia in Australia.
The most effective treatment for the disease was developed decades ago and can have crippling side-effects.
Dr Rob Lane is one of the lead researchers in a study that has looked at ways around that.
ROB LANE: By blocking the D2 receptor, which is also involved in other important body functions such as movement, these medicines can lead to some significant side-effects, such as even Parkinson-like symptoms.
And what we thought was perhaps we could attack this problem in a slightly different way by trying to find drugs that instead of blocking this receptor just act to kind of tune down the action of this protein, kind of like a dimmer switch.
STEPHANIE SMAIL: The Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences says Italian researchers were the first to flag the idea of using an existing treatment to dial down the dopamine D2 receptor, instead of blocking it.
Dr Lane says his study has confirmed the treatment works to do just that.
ROB LANE: So what we’ve done is taken a published and disclosed drug, found its got a different mechanism that actually might be beneficial, and now we’re at the starting point where we can, because of this new idea of how it works, we can start to develop better derivatives of this drug that hopefully it will end up as an effective anti-psychotic drug.
STEPHANIE SMAIL: Earlier this year, a world-first DNA study of schizophrenia linked the disease to other sites in the body, including regions previously associated with auto-immune diseases.
The discovery was hailed as a major step towards new treatments, targeting different parts of the brain.
But Dr Lane says improving existing treatments is an important step forward in the meantime.
ROB LANE: To date it’s the only really effective approach, at least in terms of pharmaceutical interventions, and so if we can find a way of doing it in a safer manner, which hopefully leaves less side-effects, I still think that’s a worthwhile approach.
STEPHANIE SMAIL: Dr Lane describes schizophrenia as a complex disease that’s difficult for the pharmaceutical industry and academics to fully understand.
He says the next step is to find the right balance for the treatment so medication is still effective but doesn’t cause side-effects.
Doctor Lane sees opportunity for a whole new class of anti-psychotic drugs in the future.
ROB LANE: We have to make sure it’s very specific for the targets in the body that we want to design it for.
We need to make sure it’s safe, we need to make sure it gets into the brain, and, you know, every single one of those different aspects is a significant hurdle and probably requires, you know, lots and lots of iterations of the design process going back and forward.
But the exciting thing is that with this new mechanism we have perhaps a different approach to treating the disease that we can hopefully take forward one day.
ELEANOR HALL: That’s Dr Rob Lane ending Stephanie Smail’s report.
This article first appeared on ‘ABC’ on 11 August 2014.