NEW YORK, NY —The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research closes 2009 with $2.1 million in awards to high-risk, high-reward approaches to Parkinson’s therapeutic development through its Rapid Response Innovation Awards. Over the course of the year, the funds were awarded to 28 research teams working on a broad range of projects, including the development of neuroprotective approaches to treat PD; therapies to alleviate symptoms; therapeutic targets for genes associated with PD; preclinical models of PD; and disease and drug biomarkers.
Rapid Response, one of the Foundation’s Edmond J. Safra Core Programs for PD Research, commits up to $2 million annually to support research with little to no existing preliminary data, but with potential to crack open entirely new ways of understanding or treating Parkinson’s disease. The program reflects the Foundation’s commitment to funding truly novel ideas in real time by accepting researchers’ proposals on a rolling basis throughout the year.
Highlights of the 2009 program include:
- Nikolaus McFarland MD, PhD, of Harvard Medical School is working on a new approach to reducing alpha-synuclein aggregation, a pathological hallmark of PD. Recent studies have shown that novel inhibitors of sirtuins (proteins that are thought to be involved in aging and neurodegenerative disease) reduce the toxic effects of alpha-synuclein in preclinical models of PD. Dr. McFarland is continuing this research by testing sirtuin inhibitors in additional preclinical models.
- Robert Reenan, PhD, of Brown University is leveraging the similarities between human and fruit fly LRRK genes to develop a new model of PD. Mutations in the LRRK2 gene are believed to be the most common genetic contributor to PD. To study these mutations, Dr. Reenan and his team are engineering fruit flies that have the same disease-causing mutations, generating a research tool that can help elucidate the biological mechanisms of PD and speed the development of drugs targeting LRRK2.
- Ronald B. Tjalkens, PhD, of Colorado State University is focusing his investigation on glial cells (non-neuronal cells that provide support and protection for the brain’s neurons), which become inflamed in Parkinson’s and produce toxic substances that further damage dopamine-producing neurons. Building on recent evidence that supports glial cells as a therapeutic target, Dr. Tjalkens will test the efficacy of a new class of experimental drug in blocking glial cell inflammation in a preclinical model of PD.
A number of Rapid Response projects from prior years received additional funding in 2009 to support the next stage of research. Under a 2008 Rapid Response award, J. William Langston, MD, of the Parkinson’s Institute in Sunnyvale, California, demonstrated that patients with pure REM behavioral disorder, a group with an increased risk of developing PD, show significant changes in heart rate variability as measured with an electrocardiogram. With supplemental funding from MJFF, Dr. Langston is now following up with patients from his study to see which of them has developed PD in order to determine whether the electrocardiogram can be used as an early marker of Parkinson’s.
The Foundation has funded over $6.7 million in awards through Rapid Response since the program was first launched in 2007. Grant abstracts and researcher bios are available for every MJFF award in the Searchable Database of Funded Grants on the Foundation’s Web site, www.michaeljfox.org.