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Parkinson's Disease Foundation awards $300,000 in bridge funding for innovative research projects

(February 19, 2009, New York, NY) The Parkinson's Disease Foundation (PDF) has awarded $300,000 in emergency bridge funding to four leading Parkinson's disease scientists. The grants will sustain promising investigations that were recently put into jeopardy by the sudden collapse of their primary private funder, The Picower Foundation.

The Picower Foundation, whose endowment was managed by Bernard Madoff, was forced to cease all grantmaking activities as of the end of 2008.

The awards will support four innovative research projects that were affected by this turn of events, with one-time grants of $75,000 each. The lead scientists on these projects, known in the field for their outstanding work in Parkinson's disease, include J. Timothy Greenamyre, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Virginia M.-Y. Lee, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, David Sulzer, Ph.D., of Columbia University Medical Center and D. James Surmeier, Ph.D., of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Each project is pursuing a novel avenue of research that may shed light on new ways of treating Parkinson's. Dr. Greenamyre, for example, will test several classes of medications already approved by the FDA for diseases other than Parkinson's to observe whether they are effective in improving gastrointestinal motility in Parkinson's. Despite the frequency and debilitating nature of this nonmotor symptom for people living with Parkinson's, there are no drugs designed specifically to address it.

Dr. Lee, along with John Q. Trojanowski, M.D., Ph.D., is focused on drug discovery, targeting the misfolding, or clumping, of a protein called alpha-synuclein. This clumping is believed to contribute to the cell death that leads to Parkinson's. Their team will test a variety of known compounds to determine if any are effective in preventing the protein clumping and will examine the most promising candidates for their potential to not only treat Parkinson's, but also to theoretically slow its progression.

Dr. Sulzer will investigate the role that inflammation, caused by an immune response, plays in causing the death of neurons in Parkinson's. Scientists already know that inflammation occurs in areas of the brain affected by Parkinson's disease and suspect that it may trigger cell death. By taking a fresh approach to understanding how inflammation is initiated, Dr. Sulzer's work may yield a better understanding of how Parkinson's develops, pointing toward new ways of treating the disease.

Dr. Surmeier will explore the idea that areas of the brain affected by Parkinson's, some of which have not been traditionally studied, may share a common mechanism that contributes to the death of neurons. He hypothesizes that this mechanism may involve excess levels of calcium inside cells. If Dr. Surmeier's high risk approach is on target, he says it may be very easy to identify a treatment that could concurrently ease the motor and nonmotor symptoms of Parkinson's, something that is not feasible with current therapies. One possibility includes isradipine, a medication already on the market for high blood pressure.

Dr. Lee, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, noted, "With PDF's help, we will be able to continue our research, the ultimate goal of which is to expand the 'pipeline' of promising compounds for novel Parkinson's therapies."

PDF Executive Director, Robin Anthony Elliott said of the grants, "Our board of directors and my colleagues at PDF were deeply affected by how the loss of one family foundation and its millions of dollars of support can have such a direct and catastrophic effect upon Parkinson's disease research. We are not only proud to support some of the talented scientists left in the wake of this event, but also believe that we owe this type of commitment to the nearly one million people in the US living with Parkinson's - people who cannot afford, even in a time of economic uncertainty, for promising research to be put on hold."

These grants are part of PDF's four-pronged approach to funding Parkinson science. PDF's research initiatives include a Center Grants Program, which funds research at three leading universities; the International Research Grants Program, which provides seed grants to promising scientists studying the science of Parkinson's disease; career development and fellowship programs that support continued interest in the field of Parkinson's; and collaborative endeavors with other organizations that fund Parkinson's disease research. In fiscal year 2009, PDF will contribute $5.4 million to support Parkinson's disease research.


Contact: Melissa Barry
Parkinson's Disease Foundation

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