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What We Fund: $28M toward Therapies to Stop Disease, a Test for Voice Changes and a Genetic Profiling Study Using Stem Cells

Watch and Learn: Gaining Insight on Parkinson's Using Wearable Technology

The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) announces 50 grants totaling more than $28 million awarded in February and March. These supported projects are driving toward scientific discoveries that may lead to new treatments and cures for people with Parkinson’s disease (PD).   

Here we review some projects investigating ways to stop the disease and ease symptoms of PD, better understand Parkinson's in varies populations and measure PD pathology. 

Testing New Therapies to Slow or Stop Progression 

Parkinson’s causes many changes in cells. Varied approaches funded recently by MJFF aim to prevent or correct that dysfunction to protect cells and slow or stop disease. Significant investments are positioning promising programs to build data and attract other funders to move them through human trials and closer to patient hands. 

  • With funding partners, The Silverstein Foundation for Parkinson’s with GBA and the Demoucelle Parkinson Charity, MJFF is supporting a follow-on study of a drug (anle138b) from biotech MODAG to stop the Parkinson’s protein alpha-synuclein from clumping together. (Scientists believe this aggregation is toxic to brain cells.) Our Foundation funded a Phase I study of the drug; the follow-up trial will further explore dosing strategy for future studies. 

Creating a Smartphone Test for Voice Changes in Parkinson’s 

A study led by Tanya Simuni, MD, at Northwestern University is working to develop a measure of voice volume and speech intelligibility using an at-home smartphone assessment. Scientists aim to create an objective measure of voice and speech issues in Parkinson’s which could be used to evaluate the impact of programs and technologies that aim to improve this system. The study also includes people who are at risk for PD to see if this voice measure could help predict or diagnose disease. 

Additionally, a 2021 MJFF grant went to develop a smartphone app to help users improve voice volume and clarity.  

Partnering with Varied Populations to Understand Parkinson’s Biology and Experience 

MJFF continues to support programs that address diversity, equity and inclusivity in Parkinson’s research. From a dedicated funding program announced in 2021, our Foundation issued an additional $2.3 million in grants to the following projects. 

  • Recognizing and Caring for Underserved Communities in Brazil 

  • Barriers and Motivators around Access to Care and Participation in Genetic Studies among Asian Americans 

  • Multiculturalism, Cognitive Complaints and Predictors of Cognitive Decline Following Deep Brain Stimulation 

  • Clinical Features, Progression and Quality of Care in Latino Patients in the United States 

  • Disparities in Care among Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders 

  • Disparities in Neurocognitive Impairment among Hispanics and Latinos in the U.S.: The Role of Cardiovascular Risk 

  • Preventing Fractures by Identifying Barriers to Care and Social Determinants of Health 

See a full list of projects funded through this program. 

MJFF also issued over $700,000 in awards to scientists for their work in the Global Parkinson’s Genetic Program (GP2), a resource of the Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s (ASAP) initiative. GP2 is an ambitious program to produce genetic data on samples from more than 150,000 volunteers around the world to expand understanding of Parkinson’s genetics. 

Using Stem Cells to Understand Parkinson’s Genetic Map  

The same team that leads GP2—led by Andrew Singleton, PhD, at the National Institutes of Health – is expanding work to create and characterize dopamine cells. Through the MJFF-funded Foundational Data Initiative for Parkinson’s Disease (FOUNDIN-PD), Singleton’s team is creating dopamine cells (which die in PD) from stem cells made from samples donated in MJFF’s landmark Parkinson’s Progression Marker’s Initiative (PPMI) study. Then researchers study these dopamine cells to understand the underlying genetic changes contributing to Parkinson’s disease. Identifying key changes on a molecular level could lead to promising targets for future therapeutic interventions. Read more on study design here.  

[Scientists can take a blood or skin cell, program it back to a stem cell then engineer them to dopamine cells. This helps study disease, given that doctors cannot take a dopamine cell from living brain.] 

The FOUNDIN-PD team has already created some of this genetic profiling data (and made it available to researchers through the PPMI data portal. Recent funding supports a next phase using updated methods and technologies to expand the quality and number of dopamine cells and genetic analysis.  

Interested in joining PPMI? Get started today. The online portion is open to anyone over the age of 18 years in the United States. View a list of International recruiting sites if you are outside of the U.S. 

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