The Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) has announced the expansion of its neurodegenerative disease research program, with Dr. Gerhard Coetzee and Dr. Viviane Labrie joining its Center for Neurodegenerative Science. The center’s focus is the development of new therapies for brain repair, the discovery of biomarkers, and the study of the molecular, genetic, epigenetic, and cellular causes of neurodegenerative disease, with special emphasis on Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive and debilitating neurodegenerative disease characterized by the loss of control of balance, movement and coordination, and it can lead to impaired cognition and a decline in intellectual function. Patients with PD are at higher risk for dementia. While some PD patients have a family history of the disease, most cases are not inherited and its underlying causes remain unclear, though scientists believe they stem from a combination of genetic, environmental and epigenetic factors.
Dr. Coetzee’s team will focus on genome-wide association studies (GWAS) and post-GWAS functional characterization, methods that associate certain variations in the genome (single nucleotide polymorphisms, SNPs) to physical characteristics and the risk of developing a certain disease. The research team will use computer programs it developed, FunciSNP and motifbreakR, to integrate GWAS data with other genetic and epigenetic information to determine which of the known Parkinson-related SNPs have a functional role in disease risk and which genes are affected by each SNP. Said Dr. Coetzee in a press release: “This has become topical after the human genome was sequenced and the unexpected realization was made that most of our genome does not code for proteins but rather how their expression levels are regulated. The uncovering of such regulatory genetic lesions in the genomes of people with Parkinson’s will not only lead to a better understanding of the etiology of the disease but also to the development of therapies slowing or halting the disease.”
Dr. Labrie’s research will compare epigenetic processes in healthy and diseased brains ,and study the association between GWAS and epigenome-wide association studies (EWAS) to determine the relation between genetic and epigenetic data. Epigenetic modifications account for regulation of gene function through processes such as methylation. Neuroepigenetics is an important area in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, as these events have been linked to important brain areas and functions such as learning, memory and stress. The research will focus on the identification of abnormally regulated brain areas and how they are linked to the neurodegenerative pathway and to disease. Uncovering these events and mechanisms will lead to a better understanding of pathogenesis and also to the possible development of early diagnostic tools, markers and novel therapies.
Dr. Patrik Brundin, MD, director of VARI’s Center for Neurodegenerative Science, is optimistic about the possibilities of the program and its focus on neuroepigenetics. “There is a strong sense in the global Parkinson’s community that we’re on the edge of a paradigm-shifting change in how we diagnose and treat the disease,” Dr. Brundin said. “When it comes to the 10 percent of cases that are inherited, we largely know which genes are involved. The addition of Dr. Coetzee and Dr. Labrie’s expertise will significantly strengthen our existing multidisciplinary team and help us understand how genetic risk factors play a role in the remaining 90 percent of cases, and why some people develop Parkinson’s disease while others with a similar genetic makeup do not.”
Dr. Coetzee has more than 30 years of experience in molecular biology and human genetics, and was recently a professor at University of Southern California’s Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Labrie is an assistant professor at University of Toronto and a project scientist in the Krembil Family Epigenetics Laboratory at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.