Parkinson’s researcher honored with 2023 Jay Van Andel Award

Virginia M.Y. Lee is credited with showing the role of misfolded proteins in a number of neurodegenerative disorders

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by Patricia Inácio, PhD |

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The Van Andel Institute has awarded scientist Virginia M.Y. Lee the 2023 Jay Van Andel Award for Outstanding Achievement in Parkinson’s Disease Research. in recognition of her pioneering work in Parkinson’s disease.

“It is an absolute honor to present Dr. Lee with the Jay Van Andel Award for Outstanding Achievement in Parkinson’s Disease Research,” Darren Moore, PhD, chair of Van Andel’s department of Neurodegenerative Science, said in a press release.

Lee, PhD, is the John H. Ware 3rd Professor in Alzheimer’s Research and director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Her seminal work revealed the role of misfolded proteins as culprits in several neurodegenerative diseases, including the alpha-synuclein protein in Parkinson’s disease.

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Misfolded alpha-synuclein forms aggregates, or clumps, that accumulate in nerve cells (neurons) responsible for releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical messenger that allows nerve cells to communicate and, among other functions, helps regulate movement.

Lee’s work has shown these aggregates cause damage that culminate with the cells’ death. Eventually, aggregated alpha-synuclein spreads to other brain cells in regions involved in cognition, sleep, and mood, triggering the hallmark symptoms of the disease.

Lee also showed the role of misfolded tau protein in Alzheimer’s disease and TDP-43 in frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including the 2019 Breakthrough Prize, considered the Oscar of science, among others.

“Our understanding of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases would not be what it is today without Dr. Lee’s extensive, groundbreaking contributions. She is an exceptional scientist whose vision and leadership are driving forces toward new therapies for these devastating disorders,” Moore said.

The award will be presented at Van Andel’s Grand Challenges in Parkinson’s Disease, its annual symposium that joins scientists, clinicians, and patients to discuss the most recent advancements in research.

The symposium will run parallel with Rallying to the Challenge, a partnership between the Van Andel Institute and Cure Parkinson’s that’s designed by patients, advocates, and care partners to show how the Parkinson’s community can aid research efforts. This year’s theme is “Pathophysiological Mechanisms to Therapeutics.”

Lee will deliver the keynote lecture on the first day of the symposium at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Sept. 27-28.

“We look forward to welcoming her to Grand Rapids in September,” said Moore, who is also a co-chair of this year’s symposium.

The events will feature talks by more than a dozen invited speakers and will include a research poster session and advocacy discussions. Participation requires registration and a fee payment.

The Jay Van Andel Award for Outstanding Achievement in Parkinson’s Disease Research was founded in 2012 in memory of Jay Van Andel, who battled Parkinson’s disease for a decade and founded the Van Andel Institute. Awarded annually, it recognizes scientists whose work has significantly advanced research on Parkinson’s disease.