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Michael J. Fox Foundation Announces Grants for Parkinson's Biomarker Research Bringing Total Investment to Nearly $4 Million

NEWYORK, NY — The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF) announced today the grant recipients for its Biomarkers II program, a two-year research program designed to accelerate the development and validation of a biomarker of Parkinson’s disease. A biomarker would help physicians accurately identify individuals at risk for Parkinson’s disease, serve as an indicator for the onset of neurodegeneration and the onset of clinical disease and would enable physicians to track disease progression. The Foundation, with a generous gift from the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation, will provide up to $1.8 million in funding to six research teams, assuming certain project milestones are met. The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation and the Parkinson’s Unity Walk also contributed funds to support the Biomarkers II program.

“Focused work to identify a reliable biomarker or series of biomarkers is critical first and foremost for physicians to accurately diagnose the disease. Advances will also impact drug development efforts, enabling researchers to validate that a particular drug is having the desired clinical effect” said Deborah W. Brooks, president and CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. “The Foundation has directed nearly $4 million in this priority area to date.”

The development of a reliable biomarker would dramatically accelerate research into the etiology and pathophysiology of Parkinson’s disease, including the testing of new drugs and other neuroprotective strategies. The Foundation reviewed proposals from applicants worldwide studying clinical and biological biomarkers and ultimately awarded grants to six teams.

One team led by Daniela Berg, MD will compare brain ultrasounds of people with Parkinson’s disease against brain ultrasounds taken from people without the disease to identify characteristics unique to Parkinson’s. If validated, this approach has the potential to be a side-effect free, highly sensitive technique to improve the accuracy of early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

Another team hypothesizes that olfactory (sense of smell) functioning may be a useful predictor of Parkinson’s disease and its progression. Olfactory dysfunction occurs in an estimated 80 to 90 percent of people with Parkinson’s and is characterized by an inability to identify and detect smells or differentiate between smells. It is more common than tremor and may pre-date the onset of motor symptoms by several years. The researchers aim to quantify olfactory functioning in people with Parkinson’s compared with people who don’t have the disease and to track changes over time.

A team from Baylor College of Medicine is interested in the protein known as NURR1 that is essential for the development and survival of dopaminergic neurons. They hope to validate earlier studies which found that levels of NURR1 messenger RNA are significantly lower in the blood of people with Parkinson’s disease.

Previously, the Foundation funded work to identify genetic mutations and patterns of gene expression associated with Parkinson’s disease. In this round of funding, a team from the University of Washington will use an innovative technique to analyze the patterns of all proteins found in human cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) of people with a confirmed diagnosis of Parkinson’s. The protein patterns observed in the Parkinson’s patients will be compared to those observed in the matched controls who don’t have the disease in the hopes of validating which proteins (and protein patterns) are unique to the disease. If successful, this approach could also help researchers track disease progression and identify those with Parkinson’s at risk for developing dementia.

This program was funded with a lead gift from the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation in memory of its founder Mr. Edmond J. Safra. Considered by many to have been among the greatest bankers of his generation, Mr. Safra was also an extraordinary philanthropist. He contributed to countless humanitarian, religious, educational and cultural causes the world over. He was deeply committed to the search for a cure for neurodegenerative diseases, in particular Parkinson’s disease, and made the support of medical research in this field one of the key objectives when he established the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation. He shared his devotion to this cause with his wife, Mrs. Lily Safra, a member of the Board of The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and, since her husband’s passing in 1999, Chairman of the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation.

To date, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research has invested more than $54 million in research aimed at finding a cure for the disease, either directly or through partnerships.

The following is a complete list of researchers who were awarded grants under the Foundation’s Biomarkers II program initiative:

Daniela Berg, MD
Hertie-Institute for Clinical Brain Research
Specificity & Sensitivity of Transcranial Ultrasound as Biomarker in Parkinson's Disease

John Duda, MD
and Richard Doty, PhD & Paul Moberg, PhD
University of Pennsylvania
Longitudinal Assessment of Olfactory Dysfunction in Early PD

Omar M. El-Agnaf, PhD
United Arab EmiratesUniversity
Development of Lewy Bodies MRI Imaging Agents for the Early Diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease and Related Disorders

Weidong Le, MD, PhD
BaylorCollege of Medicine
Reduction of Nurr1 mRNA in Human Peripheral Blood Lymphocytes as a Biomarker of Parkinson’s Disease

Mary Maral Mouradian, MD & Lawrence Golbe, MD
University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-RobertWoodJohnsonMedicalSchool
Epigenetic Regulation of the Alpha-synuclein Gene as a Biomarker of Susceptibility to Parkinson’s Disease

Jing Zhang, MD, PhD
University of Washington
Biomarkers in Human Cerebrospinal Fluid

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