UAB receives grants to investigate novel approaches to treat Parkinson's disease

The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) has awarded two research grants to UAB (University of Alabama at Birmingham) researchers to investigate novel approaches to treat Parkinson's disease.

UAB scientists will collaborate with researchers from the University of Alabama (UA) on one of the two grants, part of the Foundation's 2007 Target Validation initiative.

The first award, $250,000 over two years, will be split between Dr. David Standaert, M.D., PhD, professor of neurology and Director of the UAB Center for Neurodegeneration and Experimental Therapeutics, and Guy Caldwell, Ph.D., and Kim Caldwell, Ph.D., faculty members in biological sciences at UA.

The project is based on previous work by the Caldwells. Using a worm known as C. elegans, the Caldwell lab discovered that a protein called VPS41 prevented neurons which produce dopamine from dying. In Parkinson's patients, the death of dopamine neurons leads to the disease's cardinal symptoms: tremor, slowness of movement and rigidity.

In the new study, Standaert's lab will investigate whether the neuroprotective ability of VPS41 seen in the C. elegans worms will translate to human cell lines and mammalian animal models, which are more biologically advanced than the worm model.

The Caldwells at UA will continue to work in C. elegans, seeking to determine which specific components of the protein are neuroprotective and what regions of the protein might best be targeted for enhancement through drug therapy.

“This is an exciting collaboration between UAB and UA, combining the strengths of both laboratories and institutions to help find new answers in the treatment of Parkinson's,” said Standaert. “We're pleased to be able to work with The Michael J. Fox Foundation on these truly innovative approaches to the disease.”

The second UAB grant, also for $250,000 over two years, goes to Jianhua Zhang, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuropathology. Zhang will investigate an enzyme called Cathepsin D, which also seems to have a protective effect in brain cells.

Researchers have long known that an overabundance of a certain protein in brain cells is associated with Parkinson's. Zhang's previous work, in collaboration with the Caldwells and Kevin Roth, M.D./PhD., professor of neuropathology at UAB, indicated that Cathepsin D seems to have a role in the removal of this protein from brain cells and protection of neurons from death induced by its overabundance.

With the MJFF funding, Zhang will collaborate with Standaert to examine in mouse models for Parkinson's the effects on dopaminergic neuron death by the reduction of Cathepsin D as well as the protective effects of adding the enzyme against Parkinson's.

“It's very gratifying to know that our efforts to promote neuroscience research in Alabama are paying dividends,” said Standaert. “Alabama is truly on the cutting edge of this important work.”

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research is dedicated to ensuring the development of a cure for Parkinson's disease through an aggressively funded research agenda. To date, the Foundation has funded over $94 million in research directly or through partnerships.

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