$2.2M Grant Awarded to University of Buffalo to Develop Strategy for Early Parkinson’s Diagnosis

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by Patricia Inacio PhD |

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The University at Buffalo has received a $2.2 million grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to develop a new method for diagnosing Parkinson’s disease before the onset of clinical symptoms, according to a university press release.

Called “Molecular Segregation of Parkinson’s Disease by Patient derived Neurons,” the research project will be led by Jian Feng, PhD, a professor of physiology and biophysics at UB’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Parkinson’s disease is characterized by the progressive loss of dopamine-producing neurons, resulting in a gradual loss of coordination and movement. While symptoms vary, the most common include involuntary tremors, slowed movement (bradykinesia), rigidity or stiffness, and impaired balance.

Currently, a clinical diagnosis can only be confirmed when people begin to show these motor symptoms. However, the brain undergoes cellular alterations that precede symptom onset by many years. Detecting these alterations would allow for an earlier diagnosis and enable people to access existing treatments earlier in the disease course, possibly slowing disease progression.

Feng’s research uses a type of stem cell called an induced pluripotent stem cell (IPSC) that is able to generate almost any type of cell in the body, including dopamine-producing neurons.

Using iPSCs from patients with Parkinson’s disease and healthy individuals used as controls, researchers had previously observed that the activity of genes involved in the production and regulation of dopamine was significantly different between Parkinson’s and controls.

Now, the team intends to further explore these findings, in the hopes of developing a method to help diagnose the disease before the onset of symptoms.

“We want to investigate this further with the goal of developing a method for the objective diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. It might also allow us to predict years in advance who may develop Parkinson’s,” Feng said in the release.

Researchers also hope to be able to distinguish between different subtypes of Parkinson’s based on the presence or absence of tremors.

“The National Institutes of Health estimates that up to 1 million people in the United States may have Parkinson’s disease. That’s 1 million Americans with a difficult, progressive condition without a cure who must wait until their clinical symptoms are serious enough to be diagnosed,” said Congressman Brian Higgins, the U.S. representative for New York’s 26th congressional district and a longtime advocate for Parkinson’s research.

“This federal investment to assist our Western New York researchers hopes to provide a path to earlier detection of Parkinson’s to attempt treatment as quick as possible,” he added.

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