The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) devotes our donor-raised dollars to the most promising scientific efforts, which will help bring new treatments and cures to people living with Parkinson's. In February and March, MJFF funded 56 new grants totaling nearly $19 million.
These projects are a mix of innovative approaches working to profile toxic agents in the environment, ease hard-to-treat symptoms and better understand Parkinson’s cellular dysfunction.
Here, we highlight select studies that recently received MJFF funding and how they are positioning the field to drive closer to cures and new therapeutic options.
Treating Symptoms and Measuring Their Impact
New strategies to ease some of the hardest to treat symptoms are moving forward in testing with MJFF support. This funding shows our willingness to fund out-of-the-box ideas to address patients’ greatest needs.
- Bas Bloem, MD, PhD, at Radboud University in the Netherlands is building on reports of less severe symptoms at higher altitudes. He will limit oxygen levels to those seen at certain altitudes to assess the impact on tremor and other symptoms.
- Brit Mollenhauer, MD, at the University of Goettingen in Germany is testing the impact of a high-fiber/vegetarian diet and a diet adding resistant starch (a type of fiber) on gut bacteria balance, inflammation markers and Parkinson’s symptoms.
- Gemma Moya-Galé, PhD, at Long Island University is creating a smartphone app that puts voice recording amid multi-talker babble (recreating a public conversation) and gives an intelligibility score. The team hopes to develop and test a treatment program in the app to help improve speech volume and clarity.
Another project is reviewing patient reports on their most troublesome symptoms collected through our online Fox Insight study. This data could help guide research investments and design studies.
- Grey Matter Technologies is improving its data curation methods for more meaningful reports. They are adding people with Parkinson’s to their curation team and organizing their data to share with the research community through the FoxDen data platform. This platform shares de-identified data from the Fox Insight study to enable broad analysis and speed breakthroughs.
Identifying Toxic Factors in the Environment
MJFF explores cures from all angles including profiling environmental influences on Parkinson’s risk. Such information can be used to advocate for regulations limiting these exposures and thereby the risk of Parkinson’s and other diseases. [MJFF leads much of this advocacy as the founder of the Unified Parkinson’s Advocacy Council that has more than 20 partner organizations.] Additionally, these connections provide the basis for biological studies that may point scientists to novel intervention approaches.
We plan to fund four projects through a program announced last year, with two grants finalized thus far.
- Beate Ritz, MD, PhD, at the University of California, Los Angeles will look for pesticides that may raise Parkinson’s risk by comparing pesticide use records and addresses from participants in a large Parkinson’s study. Her team also will interrogate the biological changes associated with those exposures to uncover connections to Parkinson’s pathology.
- Samuel Goldman, MD, at the University of California, San Francisco will examine whether environmental toxicants related to military deployment are associated with Parkinson’s risk using data from a study of over 200,000 service members.
Profiling the Key Parkinson’s Protein
Much research focuses on the alpha-synuclein protein, which clumps in cells of people with Parkinson’s disease and are connected to motor symptoms. More than a dozen therapeutic approaches are in clinical trials to prevent or break up those protein clumps. And scientists continue to look for new ways to stop this process and protect cells. A handful of recent studies are developing new treatments targeting alpha-synuclein. These are in the laboratory at this stage, but these studies are driving them closer to human testing.
- Sally Frautschy, PhD, at the University of California, Los Angeles is using nanoparticles (tiny bits of matter) to drive a therapeutic compound to the spot in the cell where alpha-synuclein clumps may cause the most damage.
- Shu-ou Shan, PhD, at the California Institute of Technology is testing a type of protein (molecular chaperone) that may keep alpha-synuclein from misfolding, which may lead to its clumping.
- Caryl Sortwell, PhD, at Michigan State University is helping cells guard against alpha-synuclein clumps. Her team will examine whether blocking a receptor prevents a cell’s uptake of misfolded alpha-synuclein.
Studying and Measuring Disease toward New Tests and Therapies
With alpha-synuclein, many proteins and pathways contribute to the cellular dysfunction of Parkinson’s and, in turn, to disease progression. Researchers are working urgently to better understand and measure these pathological players to speed new therapies.
- Francesca Cicchetti, PhD, at Université Laval in Canada will study changes in the blood-brain barrier in Parkinson’s. These special cells protect the brain from toxins but do not work properly in disease. Better understanding factors that weaken the barrier (e.g., alpha-synuclein in blood or immune cells) could point to new intervention sites.
- Manoj Pandey, PhD, at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center is investigating if blocking an interaction in the inflammation pathway (the C5a-C5aR axis) reduces brain inflammation that may contribute to cell death in Parkinson’s.
- Christopher Phenix, PhD, at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada is developing an imaging tracer for the GCase protein. GCase activity is lower in people with Parkinson’s and a GBA mutation — the most common known genetic link to the disease. An imaging tool would help measure the impact of therapies against GCase (already in human studies) and perhaps identify people with a GBA mutation at risk of Parkinson’s disease for early treatment.
In addition to these nearly 60 recent grants, MJFF separately issued funding to Global Parkinson's Genetics Program, a resource of the Aligning Science Across Parkinson's (ASAP) initiative.
Foundation support also went to our landmark study the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative, which aims to better understand Parkinson's onset and progression to speed new treatments. Take a short survey to see if you may be eligible to participate.