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NIEHS invests $21.25 million to find environmental causes of Parkinson's disease

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced today that it will award three new grants totaling $21.25 million over a five-year period to study how environmental factors contribute to the cause, prevention and treatment of Parkinson's disease and other related disorders.

Parkinson's disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects nerve cells, or neurons, in several parts of the brain, including neurons that use the chemical messenger dopamine to control muscle movement. More than one million Americans suffer from Parkinson's disease, with approximately 60,000 new cases reported each year. The average age of onset is 60 years, though people have been diagnosed much younger.

The five-year grants are being awarded as part of the NIEHS' Centers for Neurodegeneration Science (CNS) announcement issued in 2007. The CNS program builds on the previous successes of the NIEHS Collaborative Centers for Parkinson's Disease Environmental Research. Each center has assembled an interdisciplinary team of investigators that are working on several tightly connected research projects related to Parkinson's disease.

"Given the growing body of literature that is identifying environmental stressors such as pesticides as risk factors for Parkinson's disease, it is more important than ever that we bring clinical and basic scientists together to clarify the causes of this disease," said Cindy Lawler, Ph.D., program administrator at NIEHS. "These new centers will bring us one step closer to new prevention and treatment strategies."

The three grantees include:

  • Gary Miller, Ph.D., Emory University, Atlanta

Parkinson's disease (PD) has been linked to pesticide exposure, mitochondrial damage, and altered storage of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dr. Miller and his team will be looking at how environmental and genetic factors interact to alter these functions in dopamine neurons. Identifying these mechanisms could lead to new therapeutic targets. In addition, the Emory team will be attempting to develop new biomarkers in the blood that will help identify people that may be at risk for developing Parkinson's disease.

  • Marie-Franoise Chesselet, M.D., Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

The researchers at UCLA have previously shown associations between high levels of exposure to specific environmental pesticides and Parkinson's disease and will build on this knowledge to determine the mechanisms of action that may be causing this association. They will use an integrated, multidisciplinary approach to identify additional agricultural pesticides that are disrupting similar molecular pathways, and determine whether these also increase the risk of Parkinson's. Their work is expected to shed light on the pathological processes involved in sporadic Parkinson's disease, the most frequent form of the disorder, and could have public health implications for precautions in the use of some pesticides.

  • Stuart Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., Burnham Institute for Medical Research, La Jolla, Calif.

Investigators at the Burnham Institute will explore how environmental toxicants may contribute to Parkinson's disease by producing free radical stress that mimics or enhances the effects of known genetic mutations. The focus will be on those proteins known to be related to Parkinson's disease, including parkin, DJ-1 and PINK1, with the goal of determining how chemical reactions that donate extra electrons lead to damaging modifications of these proteins. The clinical implications of these processes will be explored through biomarker development efforts and a screen to identify new lead compounds that can preserve protein function by reducing free radical stress.

"The UCLA and Emory CNS grants will extend the exciting lines of research previously supported by NIEHS through the Collaborative Centers for Parkinson's Disease Environmental Research, while the Burnham Institute grant will bring an important new perspective to research on gene-environment interplay in Parkinson's disease," said Dennis Lang, Ph.D., acting director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.

"As a patient advocacy group, we are thrilled to see that NIEHS is continuing its research investment in this disease," said Amy Rick, chief executive officer of the Parkinson's Action Network (PAN), an advocacy group for Parkinson's research. "We hope that with greater understanding of the role of environmental factors in causing Parkinson's disease, we will make great strides in finding better prevention and treatment approaches."


Contact: Robin Mackar
NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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