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The Michael J. Fox Foundation to Fund $2 Million for Study of Midbrain System

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research today announced that it has committed $2 million to a research initiative supporting study of the nerve cell networks that are affected in Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease involves the severe loss of the brain cells that produce the chemical dopamine.  Among its other functions, dopamine helps regulate motor control throughout the body.   While considerable research is focused on the characteristics of the dopamine producing cells themselves, less attention has been paid to the neural circuitry – interconnected network of brain cells – of which these neurons are part.  Growing evidence suggests that greater insight into the entire dopaminergic system, including its development, will increase understanding of Parkinson’s disease and heighten the likelihood of successfully developing new therapies, particularly those involving stem cells.

“Right now we do not know enough about how dopamine neurons survive and connect within developing and adult brains to determine how to effectively protect, repair or replace them,” explained J. William Langston, M.D., chief scientific advisor to MJFF and CEO of The Parkinson’s Institute.   “Designing studies that will capture important information about the functioning of the local environment in the midbrain and the dopaminergic system we are trying to repair is crucial to refining new treatments.”

This new initiative has two areas of focus.  The first is to better understand the developmental biology of the normal brain’s dopamine-regulating circuitry.  The second is the creation of alternative cell sources – such as stem cell derived lines of dopaminergic neurons and/or support cells – to use as laboratory models and ultimately as replacements for the cells lost to Parkinson’s.  Optimally, researchers need to understand how dopamine neurons are intrinsically programmed to survive and make appropriate connections within the adult brain.  This is critical as there is increasing evidence that dopamine neurons and/or host tissues may require manipulation to promote the survival and function of transplanted neurons.

“Dopaminergic neurons of the substantia nigra region within the midbrain are the most severely affected neuronal populations in Parkinson’s disease,” said Deborah W. Brooks, MJFF executive director.  “Understanding the functioning of this system within the brain is essential to rapid development of therapies.”

Applicants are asked to submit a letter of intent no later than December 3, 2003.  Final applications are due by January 19, 2004 at 5:00 pm EST.

The program titled, Specification, Patterning, and Maintenance of Midbrain Dopaminergic Systems In the Normal and Parkinsonian Brain is one element of the Foundation’s aggressive research agenda aimed at finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease.

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