Treating Parkinson’s disease by studying cellular respiration

Neurodegenerative diseases affect nearly 3 million people in France. Almost 160,000 of them suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a pathology whose prevalence rates increase with age. Given the considerable increase in life expectancy, the number of people suffering is expected to double by 2040. This is therefore a real public health problem with strong societal implications, which is why the Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle Epinière (ICM) is committed to addressing it.

The mechanism of neuronal degeneration in Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease is characterized by motor disorders that result in slowed movements, stiffness of muscles, and trembling. These disorders are the consequence of a progressive degeneration of the neurons that use dopamine as a neurotransmitter. Neurons are the body’s cell needing the most energy, which means they also have high oxygen requirements. Respiratory changes can, therefore, lead to the death of nerve cells. Iron plays an essential role at the core of the mitochondria, the place where energy is produced in the cell. “Our research consists of understanding iron’s role in cellular respiration changes,” summarizes Dr. Etienne Hirsch, a neurobiologist and Deputy Director of the ICM Research Unit (which includes INSERM*, CNRS** and the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris). “Excessive quantities of iron result in oxidation of the cell, with irreversible consequences. We now have a therapeutic target: blocking mitoferrin, a protein that transports iron in the mitochondria, to protect neurons. Our goal is to identify the chemical molecules that may have an influence on this target.

A unique research center

In order to make the fastest progress towards concrete application in terms of care, the ICM has created an international skills cluster that brings together patients, doctors, engineers, and chemists at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. “We have brought together nearly 650 people, including the world’s best brain disease researchers. We are working with Chilean neurochemists, who are specialists in the manipulation of proteins, to develop medications,” explained the Deputy Director of the ICM. “The concept consists in taking the best aspects of public and private sectors to maximize the advantages for research.”

The partnership that led to the launch of the research project

Initiated in 2010, “the partnership with the Air Liquide Foundation was the catalyst for the program,” said Dr. Hirsch. “The grant enabled us to recruit a researcher, who initiated the research project, and to buy all the reagents needed for basic experiments.” Their discoveries are showing promise in the development of therapeutic applications to slow the progression of the disease and treat its symptoms. “This is a challenge that we hope to address for patients, their families, the medical establishment, and the health industry. We really hope to reach the clinical phase one day,” concluded Dr. Hirsch, who is now Chairman of the steering committee for research for the French national neurodegenerative diseases plan.



To find out more

ICM’s Website:


* National Institute for Health and Medical Research
** National Center for Scientific Research



The teams at this institute are excellent. This subject is perfectly consistent with the Air Liquide Foundation’s mission.

Marc Lemaire
International Senior Expert
Air Liquide Healthcare International R&D
Paris-Saclay Research Center