Medtronic Inc. and Eli Lilly & Co. agreed to collaborate on an early stage research project for a potential Parkinson's-disease treatment that involves delivering medication directly to the brain -- a goal that has long eluded drug makers, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

The pact, announced Tuesday, adds to Medtronic's roster of projects aimed at using implantable drug pumps and catheters to circumvent the blood-brain barrier. The tightly packed network of cells in brain capillaries only lets certain substances through, such as key nutrients, making brain-based disorders difficult to treat with drugs.

Medtronic, the largest stand-alone medical-device maker, already has a handful of other Parkinson's collaborations underway. The company is also working through home-grown efforts and collaborations on potential treatments for other brain diseases, like Alzheimer's and Huntington's.

The latest effort with Lilly is still many years from yielding a marketable treatment or even starting human testing. The companies didn't disclose terms of their agreement, but a Medtronic spokesman said it spans early research through product development and potential commercialization.

Parkinson's is a progressive, degenerative brain disorder that affects nearly one million Americans and can lead to tremors and other movement problems, according to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. The disease, which has no cure, is thought to be caused by the death of neurons that produce the important chemical messenger dopamine. Lilly's treatment approach involves a modified form of a protein called glial cell derived neurotrophic factor, or GDNF, which is designed to protect these neurons.

Seven years ago, Amgen Inc. stopped studying a potential GDNF Parkinson's treatment delivered with Medtronic equipment because it didn't appear effective. But Lilly hopes its compound, together with Medtronic's modernized delivery system, will "overcome some prior technical hurdles," said Ros Smith, senior research director of regenerative biology at Lilly. The company believes its GDNF variant has potential to have broader distribution in the brain than prior versions.
Medtronic also has partnerships with small drug developers Neurologix Inc. and privately held NeuroNova AB of Sweden on potential Parkinson's treatments.

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