April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, and for those affected by this disease it’s a reminder of the work yet to be done.
We created the Center for Neurodegenerative Science at Van Andel Research Institute with a commitment to improve diagnostics and therapies for Parkinson’s disease patients. Researchers now understand that Parkinson’s disease is very complex and the ultimate challenge is to find a therapy that slows the relentless progression of symptoms. It is likely that several treatments targeting multiple molecular pathways will be needed along with a multi-faceted strategy to confront this disease.
In January, Dr. Peter Jones was appointed research director and chief scientific officer of VARI. Jones is a world-renowned expert in epigenetics, which is the study of how genes are turned “on” or “off” by chemical modifications rather than by alterations in the DNA sequence. Dr. Jones plans to work together with Dr. Patrik Brundin, associate research director of VARI and director of the institute’s Center for Neurodegenerative Science,to understand if epigenetic changes play a role in Parkinson’s disease. This research area has not been explored extensively by Parkinson scientists, which makes the collaboration between Jones and Brundin even more promising.
We also recently appointed additional key staff members who research Parkinson’s disease in novel and original ways. Dr. Jiyan Ma, who joined VARI in 2013, studies misfolded proteins called prions, found in contagious neurodegenerative conditions like mad cow disease. His work is significant because a Parkinson’s-related protein has been shown to spread through the brain much like a prion. Parkinson’s disease is not usually thought of as a hereditary disease, but today we are beginning to understand a gene called LRRK2 and how the disease is influenced by genetic factors. Dr. Darren Moore, a scientist who joined the center in March, is an expert on mutations in the LRRK2 gene and has developed theories on how they might cause death of brain cells in Parkinson’s.
Innovative therapies can be derived from new areas we are currently exploring, but they can also be culled from insights we already know. Dr. Brundin chairs the international scientific committee of the Linked Clinical Trials initiative, which evaluates different drugs that might be repurposed to treat Parkinson’s disease. This initiative was started by The Cure Parkinson’s Trust in the United Kingdom in 2012 and now has multiple clinical trials in the pipeline. Drug repurposing can dramatically reduce the costs to develop a new anti-Parkinson’s treatment and the time it takes for a therapy to travel from the laboratory to the patient. Ultimately, Parkinson’s disease patients across the globe should benefit from this disruptive approach to drug development.
For more information on how you can contribute to this groundbreaking research and make a difference, visit vai.org.
David Van Andel is president and CEO of Van Andel Institute.