NEWYORK, NY—The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research is committing up to $2 million to develop and test non-invasive imaging technologies that would allow scientists to visualize pathological clumping of the PD-implicated protein alpha-synuclein in the living brain. Such techniques hold potential to serve as critically needed biomarkers to improve diagnosis and speed the development of treatments with potential to slow or stop the disease from progressing.
The funding is available to academic and industry researchers under the Foundation’s Critical Challenges in Parkinson’s Disease program, a key tactic in MJFF’s ongoing quest to do whatever it takes to speed development of transformative treatments and a cure for Parkinson’s disease. Critical Challenges is emblematic of the Foundation’s urgent work to identify and prioritize research questions whose answers hold the greatest potential to move the dial on the development of better treatments and a cure for PD.
Alpha-synuclein is a major constituent of Lewy bodies, protein clumps that are the pathological hallmark of PD. The protein’s function in the normal brain and the specific role it may play in PD remain unclear. It is believed that alpha-synuclein pathology (including clumping) may predate the onset of motor dysfunction in people with PD.
“Non-invasive technologies allowing scientists to observe alpha-synuclein pathology in the living Parkinson’s brain could transform the landscape of PD research,” said Katie Hood, MJFF CEO. “This program is a natural complement to our ongoing work to drive development of a PD biomarker to improve diagnosis and speed development of disease-modifying therapies.”
In the absence of a known PD biomarker, Ms. Hood added, diagnosis of Parkinson’s is subjective. Even a movement disorders specialist can make only a subjective diagnosis, and the rate of misdiagnosis is high, particularly in the early stages of the illness. Biomarkers are also a critical missing link in the development of treatments that could slow or stop the disease from progressing, since researchers currently have no reliable way to measure disease progression or track treatment effects over time.
Brian Fiske, PhD, associate director of research programs at MJFF, noted that the program would also benefit the field’s current intensive efforts to therapeutically target alpha-synuclein. “New approaches in the pipeline seek to target abnormal alpha-synuclein and block its potential PD-causing effects. Having a method to visualize alpha-synuclein clumping in the brain as well as to watch it disappear after treatment would provide drug makers with a critical tool.” Some of the very chemicals being developed to target alpha-synuclein could also be modified to become imaging agents as well, added Fiske. “There is the potential for cross-talk between the two parallel efforts.”
Ideal applications will focus on developing and testing a sensitive and selective technique to image alpha-synuclein pathology in the living brain. Depending on the technology’s stage of development, studies may use relevant animal models of Parkinson’s disease or may perform human testing if the technology has met approved safety requirements. Applicants may propose studies exploiting standard or novel imaging modalities. The Foundation recommends that applicants refer to the development of amyloid imaging agents for Alzheimer’s disease as a model for the development of alpha-synuclein imaging technologies.
Since successful applications to this program will likely require multiple areas of expertise, such as clinical and neuropathological knowledge of Parkinson’s disease, protein and medicinal chemistry, imaging expertise and animal modeling, collaborations will be a major criterion for success. Team members may come from within or outside the PD research field.
The Foundation has earmarked up to $2 million in total funding for projects of up to two years. Applicants should submit a ‘Technology Summary’ containing an overall description of the proposed strategy for visualizing alpha-synuclein in the brain and the requirements for advancing the technology. These summaries must be submitted online by July 24, 2008, for review by the Foundation’s scientific staff and a panel of scientific experts. Information about submitting a Technology Summary online can be found on the Foundation’s Web site (www.michaeljfox.org). Applicants whose summaries are determined to meet the review criteria will work with MJFF staff to develop a full proposal. Funding is anticipated by December 2008.
A conference call with MJFF Research Programs staff to further clarify the aims and goals of this initiative will be held Friday, June 13, at 12 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time. Researchers wishing to participate in the call must RSVP to email@example.com and will receive an e-mail reply with call-in details.