WASHINGTON U.S. government researchers launched a trial on Thursday testing creatine, a supplement sold to improve exercise performance, against Parkinson's disease.
Early research suggests creatine supplements might be able to help slow the progression of Parkinson's, an incurable brain disorder that can slowly but steadily paralyze patients.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, one of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is launching the trial as the first in a series of government-sponsored studies of new Parkinson's treatments.
Many clinical studies in the United States are sponsored by drug companies, which means that often only medicines they can make money on get tested.
The NINDS will recruit 1,720 people with early-stage Parkinson's disease across the United States and Canada. Patients and doctors alike will not know whether they are getting creatine or a placebo. The study is due to last three to five years.
"This study is an important step toward developing a therapy that could change the course of this devastating disease," said NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni.
"The goal is to improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson's for a longer period of time than is possible with existing therapies."
No treatment has been shown to slow the progression of Parkinson's, which affects about a million people in the United States alone.
It is caused by the mysterious destruction of brain cells that produce dopamine, an important neurotransmitter or message-carrying chemical involved in movement.
Drug therapy to replace the dopamine or reduce tremors can help some patients for a while, but symptoms eventually worsen. There are also experimental treatments that involve transplants of new cells.
"We are trying to explore every possible option for reducing the burden of this disease," NINDS director Dr. Story Landis said in a statement.
Creatine, sold as a nutritional supplement, may affect the mitochondria -- structures that produce energy inside cells.
In mice, creatine was shown to prevent the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells.
"One thing we want to get across is that you can't go to the store, buy small amounts of creatine and think it's going to improve your Parkinson's symptoms. We don't want anyone to think this is a panacea for Parkinson's," said Dr. John Goudreau of Michigan State University, who will run one of the trial sites.
Palo Alto, California-based Avicena Group, Inc. will provide the purified creatine for the trial.
The company has also been testing creatine against the nerve disorders Huntington's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.