Scientist Kim Tieu, PhD has received a $6.6 million grant to investigate the environmental factors that may trigger the death of brain cells in Parkinson’s disease, and to develop therapies that prevent their loss.
The grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is part of its Revolutionizing Innovative, Visionary Environmental health Research (RIVER) program. It provides funding for eight years so that researchers can tackle challenging, but potentially revolutionary, lines of research.
Parkinson’s disease is characterized by the death of dopaminergic-neurons, a class of neurons that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. Neurotransmitters are substances produced in response to nerve signals that act as chemical messengers and allow nerve cells to communicate.
While a small percentage (less than 10%) of all cases of Parkinson’s disease can be attributed to genetic mutations, in most cases, the cause of the disease is unknown. Environmental factors, which have been strongly associated with Parkinson’s disease, are the focus of Tieu’s research.
“We know that the environment plays a crucial role in overall health, including the brain, and that exposures to environmental toxicants, most likely in combination with an individual’s genetic makeup, may lead to all sorts of diseases, including Parkinson’s,” Tieu, a professor at Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work in Miami, Florida, said in a press release.
“Some of the environmental factors that we will study are manganese and pesticides to better understand how they promote the accumulation and spread of toxic proteins in the brain,” Tieu said.
Recently, Tieu’s team reported the involvement of dynamin related protein-1 (Drp1) in Parkinson’s disease. Drp1 functions to split mitochondria (cells’ powerhouses). Researchers found that inhibiting Drp1 improves dopamine’s release and reduces neurodegeneration in mouse models of Parkinson’s disease.
Now, researchers want to investigate the role of Drp1 in the accumulation of toxic proteins involved in Parkinson’s disease and how different types of brain cells (namely glial cells and neurons) and genetic variants may render neurons more susceptible environmental toxins.
Recent evidence suggests that bacteria in the gut (known as the gut microbiome) may trigger Parkinson’s disease, a relatively new area of research that also will be the focus of Tieu’s lab.
“New evidence suggests that the accumulation of toxic protein in Parkinson’s disease may not start from the brain itself, but rather may spread from the gut. This is something that we need to investigate further and try to stop it,” Tieu said.
By exploring different avenues that may underly the development of Parkinson’s disease, Tieu hopes new therapies may be developed.
“The R35 RIVER grant is given to outstanding investigators in environmental health sciences, giving him (professor Tieu) and his lab the freedom to do research over several years with the support of NIEHS,” said Tomás R. Guilarte, dean of Stempel College.