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What We Fund: $27.2M Toward Research to Reduce Gait Impairment and Improve Understanding of Pain in Parkinson’s

Researching testing items in a lab

The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) announces 69 grants that total more than $27.2 million awarded in June and July 2023. These supported projects aim to detect and define early Parkinson’s disease (PD) as well as support development of symptomatic and disease-modifying treatments. 

Here we review some projects expanding our understanding of PD, diagnostic tools and potential therapies. See full list of MJFF funded studies.    

Reducing Gait Impairments 

Gait impairments are a common and disabling symptom of PD. Grégoire Courtine, PhD, and his lab at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, have adapted a technology they originally developed to restore walking in people experiencing paralysis after spinal cord injury. The technology features an implanted neurostimulation platform that stimulates the spinal cord to support movement and walking. Following early indications this approach may reduce freezing of gait episodes and other walking related impairments in people with PD, the lab is now using funding from the Translational Pipeline Program to expand testing to a Phase II trial in volunteers with PD. 

Understanding Pain in PD  

Many people with Parkinson’s suffer from pain, and existing therapies are not always effective. Preclinical research by Alexander Binshtok, PhD, at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his collaborators have indicated the biological processes underlying this pain are unique to PD. The team earned funding through a request for applications looking for circuits & cellular targets for PD’s symptoms. They are now conducting further research to better understand how PD affects brainstem areas responsible for curbing pain, particularly very early in the disease process before other symptoms become apparent. 

Advancing Strategies to Treat PD 

  • Stem Cell Delivery in the Brain: Efforts to treat PD with stem cell-derived brain cells have been limited by the small fraction of transplanted cells that mature into brain cells that can repair neurodegeneration. Eilís Dowd, PhD, and her lab at National University of Ireland have used a biomaterial to support development of these transplanted cells and increase the number that mature. With supplemental funding for an earlier MJFF grant, they are now working with preclinical models to explore how to make these biomaterial-boosted cells function alongside immunosuppressive drug therapy. Transplant recipients need immunosuppressants to prevent their body from overreacting to and resisting the transplant.  

  • Novel Gene Therapy Approach: In almost all cases of PD, misfolded alpha-synuclein proteins clump in the brain, which is believed to contribute to the motor symptoms that occur in people with the disease. Martin Levesque, PhD, and his lab at Laval University have developed a novel, noninvasive gene therapy that appears to hold potential for preventing these clumps from forming and stopping the motor symptoms from developing. With this new grant to supplement an existing research project, they are now conducting preclinical testing to learn more about its effects, including on isolated human brain cells.  

  • Mitochondrial Transfer: Mitochondria provide energy in cells, including in the brain, and mitochondrial dysfunction is linked to PD. With funding from MJFF’s Spring 2023 Request for Proposals, researchers led by Amalia Dolga, PhD, at University of Groningen are studying whether transferring healthy mitochondria to areas in the brain with damaged mitochondria holds potential to prevent PD-associated neurodegeneration.  

Improving Understanding of Parkinson’s Biology 

Improved understanding of how PD progresses biologically, as well as symptomatically, could improve drug development and inform patient care. Funded efforts to explain this biology include:  

  • To better understand the motor and nonmotor manifestations of PD, Fei Wang, PhD, and his collaborators Weill Cornell Medicine are using funding from the Data-Driven Subtyping and Stratification Program to explore the molecular mechanisms underlying the different patterns for how PD progresses, work that may inform understanding of PD subtypes. 

  • At Hospital de Clínicas de Porto Alegre, Artur Schumacher-Schuh, MD, PhD, and his team are using patient datasets and artificial intelligence to distinguish patients based on clinical and biological information, potentially revealing distinct subtypes of the disease. The work is also funded via the Data-Driven Subtyping and Stratification Program. 

  • Using clinical and molecular data from participants in the U.K.-based Tracking Parkinson’s study, Alejo Nevado-Holgado, PhD, and his lab at University of Oxford are working to identify a set of proteins that could be used to diagnose PD early and measure its progression. The work was selected for funding through the Data-Driven Subtyping and Stratification Program.  

  • A supplemental grant supporting previously-funded MJFF research was given to Changning Wang, PhD, and his lab at Massachusetts General Hospital to advance research on the use of a novel PET imaging agent that aims to show the clumps of misfolded alpha-synuclein that commonly occur in the brain in PD, an advance that could improve diagnostic accuracy and support the development of new therapeutics for Parkinson’s.  

  • Scientists led by Jeffrey Kordower, PhD, at Rush University Medical Center will build on existing work through a supplement grant to develop models that support research on the biological mechanisms believed to be triggering inflammation in the brain and leading to the range of symptoms that occur in PD. 

The Michael J. Fox Foundation continues to fund advances in technology and medicine to drive toward effective therapies that can prevent, slow or stop disease progression.  

You can be a part of that mission.  

The Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI) is our landmark study on a mission to stop the disease. It is open to anyone over age 18 in the United States. Whether you have Parkinson’s or not, join the study that could change everything.  
Recently diagnosed with PD or live outside the U.S.? Connect with the PPMI team. 

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