Michael J. Fox and The Michael J. Fox Foundation CEO Todd Sherer, PhD, presented Heiko Braak, MD, with the 2014 Robert A. Pritzker Prize for Leadership in Parkinson’s Research at a ceremony yesterday, April 22, in New York.
In 2003, Braak — now senior professor at Ulm University in Germany — outlined a Parkinson’s staging system, which describes the regional distribution and progression of alpha-synuclein clumps in the brain. The same year, Braak theorized that the biological process of Parkinson’s may begin in the peripheral nervous system before migrating to the brain.
“Professor Braak’s contributions have transformed how our field thinks about the cause of Parkinson’s and how we go after the cure,” said MJFF co-founder and executive vice chairman Debi Brooks at the ceremony.
The Pritzker Prize has been awarded annually since 2011 by MJFF to recognize researchers who make an exceptional contribution to Parkinson’s research as well as exhibit a commitment to mentoring the next generation of Parkinson’s scientists. Braak will receive a $100,000 grant to advance his research in neurodegenerative diseases.
“If we really want to prevent Parkinson’s disease for future generations, it is essential to train the current generation of neuroanatomists and neurobiologists,” said Braak. “Basic research is often remarkably unspectacular, but every scientist who falls under its spell remains dedicated for their career.”
Braak proposed that clumping of the protein alpha-synuclein — a hallmark of Parkinson’s — in the brain begins in nerve cells of the olfactory bulb and medulla of the brainstem. With disease progression, the protein aggregates also develop in the substantia nigra and the cortex, causing cellular dysfunction and cell loss.
The Braak hypothesis suggests that alpha-synuclein aggregation could begin in the nervous system of the gastrointestinal tract and migrate from there to the central nervous system.
As motor symptoms associated with dopamine cell degeneration in the substantia nigra are often the catalyst for diagnosis, previous research suggested that region as the location of the disease’s origin. Braak’s alternative explanation is supported by the chronological appearance of autonomic, motor and cognitive symptoms.
“Not only does Prof. Braak’s theory revolutionize research of Parkinson’s disease, it validates the patient experience,” said Fox.
The Robert A. Pritzker Prize for Leadership in Parkinson’s Research is made possible by Karen Pritzker, daughter of Robert A. Pritzker, and her husband, investor Michael Vlock. The prize is named in honor of the late Robert A. Pritzker, a renowned industrialist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. Pritzker was founder of The Marmon Group and president of Colson Associates, Inc., holding companies for a variety of manufacturing and medical businesses. Additionally, he was an early promoter of the field of medical engineering at his alma mater, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago, where he also played a key role in expanding the biomedical research community through his support of The Pritzker Institute for Biomedical Science and Engineering at IIT.
The award itself is designed by renowned artist and Parkinson’s patient Tom Shannon.
Read more about the research Prof. Braak’s work has inspired.