Parkinson’s UK funding 2 research projects into risk, protective factors

Goal is to uncover clues into genetics of disease, slow its progression

Margarida Maia, PhD avatar

by Margarida Maia, PhD |

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Parkinson’s UK is funding two new basic research projects at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, that have as their goal uncovering clues to the causes of Parkinson’s disease, with a focus on genetic involvement.

According to the charity organization, such basic research provides the groundwork for understanding how Parkinson’s develops, paving the way for the development of new treatments that have the potential to slow or even stop disease progression.

“We are dedicated to funding research which will bring us new understanding and new treatments for Parkinson’s, faster,” James Jopling, Scotland director for Parkinson’s UK, said in an organization press release.

“The Parkinson’s community in Scotland is incredibly engaged with research, and having local access to world-class scientists enables them to become even more involved,” Jopling added.

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Projects led by researchers at University of Edinburgh, in Scotland

Leading one of the newly funded research projects is Tilo Kunath, PhD, a principal investigator and chair of regenerative neurobiology at the university’s Center for Regenerative Medicine.

A hallmark feature of Parkinson’s is the buildup of toxic clumps of alpha-synuclein protein in certain nerve cells of the brain. It’s believed that this may arise from a number of genetic and environmental factors working in combination.

“There are 4 factors that might trigger damage or make it worse for people with Parkinson’s: viral infection, exposure to environmental toxins, poor cellular waste disposal and an individual’s genes,” Kunath said.

Kunath’s team will draw on this information to build what the researcher called “a complete and accurate model of Parkinson’s in a dish.”

That model will serve as a mockup for testing how and if new medicines may help in treating the neurodegenerative disease.

“That’s important because we can use this model to predict which new medicines are most likely to work in people, speeding up the process of making new treatments available for Parkinson’s,” Kunath said.

The team also is planning to use live imaging to look at alpha-synuclein, exploring how it behaves when exposed to viruses and toxins, and how well new medicines help the cellular waste disposal system get rid of its toxic clumps.

“In addition to being a great model for testing drugs, this work will help to answer outstanding questions about how viruses impact alpha-synuclein which could change how we think about treating people with Parkinson’s,” Kunath said. 

I see research as the only chance there is to advance knowledge about Parkinson’s and move towards a cure or better treatments.

In her lab, Kathryn Bowles, PhD, from the UK Dementia Research Institute at the university, will use the funding to back a project that follows up on previous work on the LRRC37A/2 gene in Parkinson’s. Her team now will look into this gene in more detail.

The LRRC37A/2 gene provides instructions for a protein of the same name that can be found in astrocytes, star-shaped cells that give support to nerve cells. The protein has been seen to map to alpha-synuclein toxic clumps in brain tissue of people with Parkinson’s.

A higher number of copies of the LRRC37A/2 gene seems to be protective against Parkinson’s, according to Bowles.

“If we can confirm this gene is protective and understand why, that will open up new avenues for therapy,” she said.

“We can then say, these are the mechanisms we need to target, this is how we can change the expression of this gene, and that is a pathway to therapy. It’s quite far away, but it’s a new avenue to go down,” Bowles added.

David Rigg, diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 46 and a member of the Dundee Research Interest Group — an advocacy organization that brings together patients, doctors and scientists as a way to encourage involvement in research — said it was “brilliant to see research happening in Scotland.”

“I see research as the only chance there is to advance knowledge about Parkinson’s and move towards a cure or better treatments,” Rigg said.