The National Parkinson Foundation Awards Four Innovative Research Grants

Release date: 5/22/2014

—Research Includes Stem Cells, Imaging and Exercise for Cognition—

MIAMI, May 22, 2014—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 how Parkinson’s develops and how to optimize treatment.

“NPF is propelling the most potentially transformative research forward,” said Joyce Oberdorf, NPF’s President and CEO. “This research will help us understand how a cause leads to the disease, how the disease progresses, and the best ways to treat it.”

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

Prion Like Propagation of a-Synuclein Pathology in iPSC-derived Dopamine Neurons from Patients with Parkinson's Disease: Edward A. Fon, MD, FRCP-C, Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.
Using induced stem cell lines derived from actual patients (non-embryonic), Dr. Fon will create neurons with PD in a cell culture.  He and his team will then look closely at the internal structures of the cells and how PD pathology affects them at the cell level.  They will also create neurons from people who didn’t have PD so that they can compare. Dr. Fon’s team has tested almost 200,000 potential drugs to stop Parkinson’s using generic human-derived cells and found some that seem like they may be able to slow down or stop the disease. They will repeat this test using actual, human-derived neurons created using induced stem cells to screen potential drugs to stop PD.

Studies of Prion-like Peripheral to CNS Transmission of α-synuclein Pathology Mouse Models: Benoit Giasson, PhD, UF Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease, UF Center for Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.
A protein called alpha-synuclein is believed to be the key to Parkinson’s.  Dr. Giasson and his team are going to inject clumps of alpha-synuclein into the bodies of animals and then figure out if it can get into the brain from, for example, an injection in the leg.  If the protein does spread this way, and if the animal then develops symptoms of PD, then this could provide proof that this model does work.  It would also give us a model of PD that could be easily made and used in studies of drugs that might cure the disease.

PET Imaging of Hyperphosphorylated Tau Denotes Cognitive Impairment in Parkinson’s Disease: Stephen Gomperts, MD, PhD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts.
The protein tau is better known for its association with cognitive change in other conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or chronic traumatic encephalopathy caused by repeated impact to the brain. However, it is also seen in Parkinson’s.  A newly developed radioactive tracer will show where the protein tau is accumulating and create a picture using a PET scan.  For the first time, scientists will be able to look at tau in patients living with PD and figure out if the cognitive change we see in PD is a result of this protein or something else.

Exercise Targeting Cognitive Impairment in Parkinson’s Disease:
Giselle M. Petzinger, MD, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California.
Parkinson’s experts believe that exercise is as important as any drug in holding back the disease, but many people with PD wonder, “What kind of exercise should I do?”  This study will test a new exercise protocol that Dr. Petzinger developed from studying the biology of exercise at the cellular level versus a more traditional approach. Her goal will be to show that this new, specially-designed exercise protocol actually improves high- level thinking in people with Parkinson’s. This important work will focus on improving early and subtle aspects of cognitive change, including standard tests of executive function but also novel tests that incorporate testing of aspects of thinking that are important to patients.

“These four projects are answering some key questions about Parkinson’s.  Drs. Fon and Giasson will each help us understand some important questions about how Parkinson’s disease spreads within the brain, a topic that was the number one basic science challenge identified by the NIH,” said Peter Schmidt, PhD, Vice President, Research and Professional Programs at NPF. “Dr. Gompers will attempt to develop a biomarker for cognitive change in Parkinson’s, which we know varies from patient to patient and so measurement is important.  Dr. Petzinger’s study represents the culmination of a decade or more of work to understand the different effects of various exercise strategies.”

Each grant was peer-reviewed and selected by the NPF’s Clinical and Scientific Advisory Board. 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 7,500 people with Parkinson’s who receive care at 20 NPF Centers of Excellence in four countries. For more information about NPF’s research initiatives, visit www.parkinson.org/research.

About Parkinson's Disease (PD)
Affecting an estimated one million Americans and four to six million worldwide, PD is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer's and is the 14th leading cause of death in the United States. It is associated with a progressive loss of motor control (e.g., shaking or tremor at rest and lack of facial expression) as well as non-motor symptoms (e.g., depression and anxiety). There is no cure for PD and 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States alone.

About the National Parkinson Foundation (NPF)
Founded in 1957, the National Parkinson Foundation's mission is to improve the quality of care for people with Parkinson's disease through research, education and outreach. NPF has funded more than $180 million in care, research and support services. For more information about NPF, visit www.parkinson.org, or call the NPF Helpline at 1-800-4PD-INFO (473-4636).

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