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Heiko Braak, MD, Author of Parkinson's Staging Procedure, Honored with 2014 Robert A. Pritzker Prize

Heiko Braak, MD, who proposed a novel pathway of Parkinson's disease progression, is the recipient of the 2014 Robert A. Pritzker Prize for Leadership in Parkinson's Research, conferred annually by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research (MJFF).

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 protein aggregates in the brain. The same year, Braak theorized that the biological process of Parkinson's may begin in the periphery before migrating to the brain.

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.

"Dr. Braak's contributions to Parkinson's research cannot be overstated. His work has fundamentally changed our approach to identifying the cause and the cure of Parkinson's," said Todd Sherer, PhD, CEO of MJFF. "Today's generation of scientists owes much to Professor Braak; he truly is a pioneer and has brought us leaps forward in our efforts to eradicate this disease."

Braak proposed that accumulation in the brain of the protein alpha-synuclein -- a hallmark of Parkinson's -- 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, which revolutionized how researchers think about Parkinson's disease, posits 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.

His staging procedure and hypothesis have elevated research into non-motor symptoms and alpha-synuclein levels in the periphery as a biomarker. Furthermore, the Braak hypothesis led to the application of a 'prion-like' theory to Parkinson's disease -- purporting that alpha-synuclein aggregates propagate and move from nerve cell to nerve cell, spreading disease, rather than arising organically in different areas.

"My life's work is devoted to unraveling the patogenesis of neurodegenerative diseases, and it is heartening to share that goal with an organization such as The Michael J. Fox Foundation: one that pushes forward each day with a cure for patients foremost in mind," said Braak.

In 1991, Braak, then professor of anatomy at the Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main, Germany, proposed a now internationally established neuropathological staging protocol for Alzheimer's disease, mapping the regional patterns of tau and amyloid-beta protein aggregates in the brain.

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. Their gift provides a $100,000 grant to the Pritzker Prize recipient each year, and Pritzker and Vlock have been generous donors to MJFF.

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 MJFF Executive Scientific Advisory Board served as the jury panel. Selection criteria included: the nominee's complete body of work in the PD field with an emphasis on its impact on accelerating drug development; field-wide impact of the nominee's work; dedication to patient-relevant science; and influence on and encouragement of the next generation of PD investigators.

The award, designed by renowned artist and Parkinson's patient Tom Shannon, was presented to Braak by Michael J. Fox at a ceremony on April 22, 2014, in New York City.

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