Grants Given to 8 ‘Blue Sky’ Research Projects at Emory, Georgia Tech

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by Vanda Pinto, PhD |

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Eight grants worth a total of $575,000 were awarded by the McCamish Parkinson’s Disease Innovation Program to research teams at Georgia Tech and Emory University advancing projects into Parkinson’s disease.

“These grants are specifically focused on technology-driven research for understanding, treating, and curing Parkinson’s disease,” Garrett Stanley, PhD, professor and founding director of the McCamish program at the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at those two Atlanta universities, said in a press release.

The program aims to promote and enable far-reaching studies into Parkinson’s and other complex neurological disorders to better understand them and treat patients.

These awards, a first round of “Blue Sky” grants, consist of five $40,000 awards for earlier-stage projects, and three larger awards of $125,000.

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The smaller awards “are like seed grants — even if it’s just a great idea at this point, we want to help get this research off the ground,” Stanley said. “The other awards are to help teams that are farther along. Our goal is to help get those teams to the next level, to go after resources from the NIH [National Institutes of Health] or NSF [National Science Foundation] or other foundations, or to pursue commercialization.”

Award-winning projects range from basic science to more practical, application-focused research.

A few teams are directing their attention toward Parkinson’s motor symptoms. Two are investigating freezing of gait, which is fairly common in this disorder. While one is using computer vision to measure gait freezing, another is studying spinal cord stimulation as a way of treating it. (Computer vision is a field of artificial intelligence that allows computers to interpret digital information, obtained from images, videos, and other visual forms.)

Others will investigate various methods of deep brain stimulation to treat disease-related motor symptoms, and ways of better understanding the involuntary movements (called dyskinesia) experienced by 80% to 90% of patients as a side effect of the common Parkinson’s treatment levodopa.

Ellen Hess, PhD, a principal investigator of this study, and Chethan Pandarinath, PhD, a biomedical engineering assistant professor, will use a deep learning machine approach — through which computers search data for patterns — to spot irregular neuronal activity in levodopa-induced dyskinesias (LIDs).

“After we identify the abnormal firing patterns, we hope to use that information to lead us to therapeutics that nudge the firing patterns back to normal to alleviate the LIDS while still allowing patients to experience” levodopa’s benefits, Hess said.

Blue Sky awards are also supporting work into algorithms that might optimize brain stimulation treatment and pharmaceutical therapy doses, biofeedback devices to help patients with difficulty communicating, and wearable technologies to continuously monitor heart activity and blood pressure.

One of the smaller grants will go toward using artificial intelligence to identify current therapies that might be repurposed to treat those with COVID-19.

The McCamish Foundation is led by Gordon Beckham, president and CEO of The McCamish Group, based in Atlanta. In addition to Emory and Georgia Tech, its Parkinson’s innovation program supports disease research at the University of Georgia and various state-led efforts.

Beckham is vice chairman of the Parkinson’s Foundation’s board of directors.

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