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The National Parkinson Foundation Awards Four Innovative Research Grants

One Million Dollar Investment in Clinical Research in Parkinson’s Disease

MIAMI — The National Parkinson Foundation (NPF) announced today that it has funded four new grants in Parkinson’s disease (PD) research. The four grants target key scientific questions about gender differences in Parkinson’s, cognition and inflammation.

“When we selected these three focus areas, we chose to target research to help people with Parkinson’s disease today,” said Peter Schmidt, PhD, NPF’s Senior Vice President and Chief Mission Officer.  “These grants, which include both clinical and pre-clinical research, will advance our knowledge in ways that both inform treatment decisions now and inspire research tomorrow.”

NPF funded the following four studies over a two-year period totaling $1 million dollars:

1) Determinants of sex differences in caregiving for Parkinson’s disease: Nabila Dahodwala, MD, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.

Dr. Dahodwala has been awarded a two-year grant to study issues that result in differences in caregiving and to explore whether there may be options to improve caregiving.  Starting with an analysis of data from NPF’s Parkinson’s Outcomes Project, Dr. Dahodwala will study barriers to effective caregiving, starting in a small-scale setting and expanding to understand a large and diverse group.  Drawing on outcomes data, she will design an approach to help clinicians to address issues of caregiving and to engage clinic social workers to improve the lives of both women and men affected by PD.

2) The relationship between microglial activation and β-amyloid deposition in PD-MCI and PD-dementia: Antonio Strafella, MD, PhD, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.

In 2010, Dr. Strafella was awarded a grant from NPF to research how patients with mild cognitive impairment differed from those without, at the level of deep brain structures, using advanced imaging techniques. Dr. Strafella will follow up this work looking at inflammation, studying the impact of the Alzheimer’s protein β-amyloid in Parkinson’s.  This study will use an advanced imaging technique, positron emission tomography (PET) scans, to examine how a number of important factors interrelate in the brain.  First, they will look at how the brain’s immune system, which is based on cells called microglia that respond to inflammation in the brain, are activated in patients experiencing cognitive change.  Second, they will look for deposition of β-amyloid to see if this Alzheimer’s protein is linked to this inflammation.  Finally, they will look to see if the brain atrophies in regions where one or both of these signals are found.  A big question is which comes first: the bad proteins or the inflammation?  This study will be based around a new technology: an innovative PET scan tracer that shows where the brain’s immune system is active.

3) Neuroinflammation via T-cell response in Parkinson’s and Lewy body diseases: David Sulzer, PhD, Columbia University, New York, NY.

In this study, Dr. Sulzer explores a radical new hypothesis: could Parkinson’s disease be significantly characterized as an auto-immune disorder, where the cell damage in Parkinson’s is caused more by immune system response than by accumulation of toxic proteins?  Dr. Sulzer’s lab has identified two markers of immune response present in people with Parkinson’s.  While this work is related to the current focus on the key Parkinson’s protein called α-synuclein, it suggests that the greatest impact of this protein may actually be down-stream from its synthesis and misfolding.  By focusing on studying tissue from patients with Parkinson’s and not models, Dr. Sulzer hopes to provide a greater understanding of Parkinson’s.

4) Establishing the link between canonical TGFβ-superfamily signaling and Parkinson’s disease pathophysiology: Paschalis Sideras, PhD, Biomedical Research Foundation Academy, Athens, Greece.

Several processes in the brain, including some inflammatory reactions, are regulated using signaling proteins called transforming growth factor-beta (TGFβ) proteins.  Scientists know that several TGFβ proteins are linked to Parkinson’s disease, but how they are linked is not yet known.  Dr. Sideras will study these regulatory proteins in several mouse models of Parkinson’s, looking for common responses across models that could help inform treatment decisions and future research.  Dr. Sideras hopes that understanding TGFβ will guide strategies to make the dopamine-producing neurons more resistant to PD.

“Three of these NPF-funded grants are focused on the intersection between inflammation in the brain and Parkinson’s disease,” said Ariel Deutch, PhD, chairman of NPF’s Clinical and Scientific Advisory Board (CSAB), who led the grant review. “Until recently, it was thought that the brain lacked an immune response.  The brain was long thought of as a unique, almost privileged organ with its blood-brain barrier preventing harmful substances from gaining access to the brain.  New methods have allowed us to determine that inflammation is present in the brain.  Now we can examine questions such as what precipitates inflammation in the brain in PD and whether the way we address inflammation influences disease progression.” 

Each grant was peer-reviewed and selected by the NPF’s Clinical and Scientific Advisory Board, led by Dr. Deutch. In addition to this grant funding, NPF continues to fund the Parkinson’s Outcomes Project; the largest clinical study of its kind that is currently tracking more than 8,000 people with Parkinson’s who receive care at 21 NPF Centers of Excellence in four countries. For more information about NPF’s research initiatives, visit www.parkinson.org/research.

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