Emory receives $6 million grant to accelerate Parkinson’s disease treatment research

Woodruff Health Sciences Center | Nov. 5, 2021

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Lisa Newbern
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ATLANTA – Emory University researchers received a three-year, $6.3 million grant from the Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s (ASAP) Collaborative Research Network for research into the motor cortical disturbances caused by Parkinson’s disease (PD). Joining with the Emory team in this project are researchers from the Van Andel Institute (VAI) in Grand Rapids, Michigan; SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn, New York; and Inscopix in Palo Alto, California. 

A better understanding of the motor disturbances will facilitate the development of improved treatments to reduce the impact of PD, a progressive, neurodegenerative disorder. PD affects at least 1 million people in the United States and more than 6 million people worldwide, making it a priority for research to better treat and even cure the disease. The disease leads to prominent movement and other disturbances. The motor symptoms of PD occur when brain cells that make dopamine, a chemical that coordinates movement, die.

Thomas Wichmann, MD, is the project team’s coordinating lead principal investigator. Wichmann is also a professor of Neurology at the Emory School of Medicine (SOM) and associate director for scientific programs at Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and he treats patients who have PD at the Emory Movement Disorders Clinic at the Emory Brain Health Center.

The Emory/Yerkes team also includes core leaders Adriana Galvan, PhD, and Yoland Smith, PhD. Galvan is an associate professor in the SOM Department of Neurology and a researcher at Yerkes. Smith is a professor in the SOM Department of Neurology and division chief of Neuropharmacology and Neurologic Diseases at Yerkes. 

The brain’s cerebral cortex plays a significant role in selecting and controlling movements. “Our research will examine one of the enigmatic aspects of the disease: the involvement of the cerebral cortex in the manifestations of parkinsonism,” Wichmann says. “Characterizing abnormalities in specific cortical neurons, such as our team plans to do, is critical for developing new therapies that target the affected circuits through deep brain stimulation as well as medications and genetic methods.”

The research team will work with animal models of PD and use technologies, such as optical imaging and electrical brain recordings, to study large groups of specific types of cortical neurons and explore how their activity and connections change when parkinsonism develops. 

The study results will guide the development of new treatment strategies that may directly target cortical nerve cells. “Establishing the time course of anatomical changes, relative to disease progression, is important for determining the appropriate timing for applying these treatment strategies and, therefore, achieving the best results,” Wichmann explains.  

Leading the VAI team and serving as another of the project’s core leaders is Hong-yuan Chu, PhD. “Parkinson’s is a complex disorder that has long evaded attempts to fully reveal its underpinnings and, as such, has stymied attempts to slow or stop disease progression,” Chu says. “I am hopeful our mechanistic studies will reveal new insights into the brain circuits impacted by the disease at the cellular and synaptic levels, and provide a path forward for new therapeutic development.”

ASAP is a coordinated research initiative to advance targeted basic research for Parkinson’s disease. Its mission is to accelerate the pace of discovery and inform the path to a cure through collaboration, research-enabling resources, and data sharing. The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research is ASAP’s implementation partner and issued the grant. 

Emory will also be involved in another ASAP-funded team researchers at Duke University are leading. Tim Sampson, PhD, assistant professor, SOM Department of Cell Biology, will serve as the Emory principal investigator and a core leader. He will focus on understanding how the gut microbiome interacts with particular sensory cells in the gastrointestinal tract to trigger disease and disruption in the brain. 

“We know individuals with Parkinson's can have gastrointestinal issues that coincide with distinct changes to the gut microbiome,” says Sampson. “My team will use animal models that have human gut microbes to determine whether particular microbes are sufficient to induce Parkinson’s disease-like changes to the gut, through these sensory cells. We hope this characterization into the earliest changes in the body that occur in Parkinson’s disease will provide insight into what causes the disease.” 

“Each team selected for the Collaborative Research Network brings unique expertise and perspective to ASAP’s mission of tackling key knowledge gaps in disease understanding through open science. We are proud to partner with Emory University on this innovative and impactful project that will position the field closer to new treatments for the millions living with and at risk of Parkinson’s disease,” says Ekemini Riley, PhD, ASAP managing director. 

“We are very excited to participate in the ASAP Collaborative Research Network,” adds Wichmann. “This is a fantastic opportunity to work with some of the best groups in the country to increase our knowledge of Parkinson’s disease, from genetic and molecular changes to large-scale alterations of brain network activities. We hope our work will eventually lead to more effective and specific treatments for Parkinson’s disease, with fewer side effects than seen with the currently available approaches.”

Dedicated to discovering causes, preventions, treatments and cures, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center (NPRC), part of Emory University’s Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center, is fighting diseases and improving human health and lives worldwide. The center, one of only seven NPRCs the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds, is supported by more than $88 million in research funding (all sources, fiscal year 2020).

Yerkes researchers are making landmark discoveries in microbiology and immunology; neurologic diseases; neuropharmacology; behavioral, cognitive, and developmental neuroscience; and psychiatric disorders. Since 1984, the Yerkes Research Center has been fully accredited by the AAALAC International, regarded as the gold seal of approval for laboratory animal care. 

For more information about Yerkes and the seven NPRCs, visit NPRC.org and follow us at @NPRCnews.