Sweet news from Israel for Parkinson’s disease (PD) sufferers: A Tel Aviv University research team has shown that the artificial sweetener mannitol may be a key in fighting this debilitating disease.
Take a closer look at a pack of sugar-free gum or candy and you’ll see that mannitol, a sugar alcohol produced by fungi, bacteria and algae, is a common ingredient. The sweetener is also used in the medical field — it’s approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a diuretic to flush out excess fluids, and used during surgery to open the blood/brain barrier to the passage of other drugs.
Now, Professors Ehud Gazit and Daniel Segal of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology and the Sagol School of Neuroscience, along with their colleague Ronit Shaltiel-Karyo and Ph.D. candidate Moran Frenkel-Pinter, have found that mannitol also prevents clumps of the protein á-synuclein from forming in the brain — a process that is characteristic of PD.
Although this is an exciting breakthrough, Segal warns against self-treatment or ingesting mannitol in large quantities simply based on these initial findings.
“People should not eat it as much as they want. This may be harmful. I would not recommend it to any human being, as we have no idea what the side effects would be,” Segal said in an interview with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs newsletter. “More testing must be done.”
After identifying the structural characteristics that facilitate the development of clumps of á-synuclein, the researchers set out to find a compound that could inhibit the proteins’ ability to bind together.
Segal says he and his fellow researchers looked at a variety of small molecules and found that “certain small sugars appeared to have a positive effect in preventing aggregation of the protein.” Among them, they found mannitol — already FDA-approved for use in a variety of clinical interventions.
For now, he suggests that doctors could use mannitol in combination with other medications that have been developed to treat PD but which have proven ineffective in breaking through the blood/brain barrier. These medications may be able to “piggyback” on mannitol’s ability to open this barrier into the brain, he explains.
“I don’t know [whether mannitol will provide] a cure; this may be too optimistic. If we can slow down the disease, diagnose it early enough and reduce the amount of suffering, I will be more than happy,” sums up Segal. “I’m definitely hopeful.”