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MJFF Suggests Ways to Help Advance Clinical Trials During Pandemic

online research tools

With numerous clinical trials interrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) is highlighting online ways that Parkinson’s (PD) patients and others can help to advance research.

People are necessarily spending more time at home, but study participation remains crucial to treatment development. Even before the outbreak, volunteer shortages delayed 85 percent of clinical trials. Thirty percent were unable to even get started.

“It can be an empowering and impactful opportunity for people with and without Parkinson’s disease to help accelerate breakthroughs in treatment,” the MJFF states on its webpage about research participation. “You have the power to help researchers understand how Parkinson’s starts and progresses.”

One research opportunity is the organization’s Fox Trial Finder, an online tool that matches individuals with studies for which they may be eligible. Even if the trial is on hold, patients and others can still express interest. Study coordinators will follow up once recruitment restarts.

Trials can be found through a guided search, or, based on location and keyword, by independent searches. Those interested may also register to receive email alerts about local studies that are or will be recruiting.

Another way to get involved is by joining the organization’s Fox Insight, a digital platform and clinical study aimed at building a large cohort of patients and age-matched control volunteers to help focus treatment priorities, inform their development, and optimize trial design.

This long-term study, which includes patients, families, and caregivers, collects de-identified self-reported data about health experiences. Through an associated genetic sub-study, powered by consumer genetics company 23andMe, eligible individuals can help researchers gain a holistic view of Parkinson’s.

“Technology now allows thousands to contribute vast volumes of data on their lived experience of disease, from symptoms and quality of life to treatment satisfaction and research participation preferences,” MJFF states about Fox Insight, which opened in 2017.

Go here to register and for an informational video.

Elsewhere, the University of Rochester’s neurology department is offering a 20-minute survey that aims to help scientists learn more about Parkinson’s symptoms and everyday issues of importance to patients. The anonymous responses will be used to guide additional studies and to help develop a disease-specific patient-reported outcome measure for clinical trials. The survey may be completed online, on paper, or over the phone.

Bastyr University, in California and Washington state, is leading an online study about complementary and alternative medical care in Parkinson’s. It aims to help scientists learn more about diet, lifestyle and Parkinson’s progression, and the long-term effect of complementary and integrative care on health and life quality.

Patients are asked to complete two online questionnaires every six months for five years. Survey topics cover diagnosis, disease status, sense of balance, daytime sleepiness, walking, dressing, eating, falling, speech, handwriting, pain, vision, sense of smell, comprehension and cognition, sexual dysfunction, dyskinesia, and posture.

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MJFF ‘Parkinson’s Podcast’ Series on Navigating COVID-19 Begins Today

COVID-19 and Parkinson's Podcast

To help patients and their families cope with the global COVID-19 outbreak, The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) is launching a limited-series podcast.

The series begins today, May 6, and is part of MJFF’s ongoing Parkinson’s Podcast. It’s available every other Wednesday on michaeljfox.org/podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Apple Podcasts.

The podcasts offer information and advice about key facets of the pandemic that could be useful during this period when so many Parkinson’s (PD) patients, along with many others, are forced to stay indoors. Topics include:

  • Making the most of telemedicine appointments with a movement disorder specialist
  • Best practices for ongoing deep brain stimulation (DBS) therapy planning
  • Tips for socially isolating when at-home care is needed
  • Ways to participate in Parkinson’s research from home
  • How mindfulness and physical exercise can help ward off depression and feelings of isolation

“Whether you are 37 or 73, living through a pandemic of this scale is new for all of us, and navigating the Parkinson’s journey adds another layer of challenge. Our Foundation is committed to helping people with Parkinson’s live their best lives with the disease through a wide range of engagement opportunities,” Rachel Dolhun, MD, MJFF vice president of medical communications and a board-certified movement disorder specialist neurologist, said in a press release.

“Connecting with the worldwide PD community through a limited series podcast allows us to provide credible, accurate, and up-to-date information while offering advice, insight, and hope,” Dolhun added.

Each podcast will feature Dolhun and an expert guest, and will be hosted by MJFF Patient Council member Larry Gifford, who was diagnosed at 45. Gifford currently hosts the Curiouscast podcast “When Life Gives You Parkinson’s,” and is the national director of talk radio for Corus Entertainment in Canada.

“I’m honored to be a part of this important project,” Gifford said. “Parkinson’s is already a very lonely disease. Add self-isolation and social distancing to it and it’s a recipe for feeling disconnected, anxious, and depressed.

“The podcast is an accessible and intimate way to help bring our community together, ask and answer questions, sort fact from fiction and provide the important information they need to remain healthy and active during this time,” he said.

The nonprofit organization recently announced its new online information and resource hub, aimed at helping those living with Parkinson’s manage the pandemic while staying at home.

This dedicated site includes webinarspodcasts, online educational events, insights and tips regarding Parkinson’s and the coronavirus, and a virtual events hub to see how the community is staying connected.

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Parkinson’s Expert Offers Tips About Enduring the COVID-19 Pandemic

Parkinson's and COVID-19

An estimated one million Americans have Parkinson’s disease. Nobody knows how many of them also are infected with COVID-19, but the experts do offer sound advice about how Parkinson’s patients can avoid getting sick in the first place.

Rachel Dolhun, MD, is vice-president of medical communications at the New York-based Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF). In an April 23 phone interview with Parkinson’s News Today, Dolhun boiled down her advice to six words: stay connected, stay active, stay present.

Rachel Dolhun, MD, is vice-president of medical communications at the Michael J. Fox Foundation. (Photo courtesy of MJFF)

“There are so many ways now that we can connect with other people and be part of a community, even though we’re physically apart,” said Dolhun, a board-certified neurologist and movement disorder specialist who joined MJFF in 2014. “Technology offers us so many routes to be together while socially isolating. We can do virtual chats, or we can just pick up the phone.”

These connections are crucial for people with Parkinson’s, who are at increased risk for many of the symptoms everyone has been experiencing lately — anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Fox, an iconic Hollywood actor, established the foundation that bears his name in 2000, two years after publicly disclosing his Parkinson’s diagnosis at the age of 29. The foundation, headquartered in New York, says that 88 cents of every dollar it raises goes directly to research for Parkinson’s.

As MJFF continues to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be updating the Parkinson’s community via its COVID-19 Resource Hub, which includes access to webinars live and on demand.

“We at the foundation are offering ways to be with others during this time, whether it’s through Facebook watch parties or sharing through hashtags together while at home,” said Dolhun, who has created a number of tools and resources for patients including the Ask the MD series of blogs and videos, guides for living well, and Parkinson’s 360.

Staying active also is key to maintaining health during the current pandemic, Dolhun said.

“This is so important for overall well-being, but it’s really critical for people with Parkinson’s disease,” she said. “We’ve had to become creative and flexible during this time, by taking classes on line and doing good exercise routines. There’s really been a shift in thinking on staying active, just by going for a walk outside and getting fresh air.”

Turn off the news

Even if that’s not possible because of quarantines and lockdowns, Dolhun said, “you can walk in your own apartment, stand while you’re working, or walk while you’re taking conference calls.”

Equally important as staying connected and active is living in the present.

“Meditation is not for everybody,” Dolhun said. “There are many ways to be mindful. Try to focus on this present moment, what we can do instead of what we can’t do — and being in this moment instead of thinking 27 steps ahead.”

MJFF expert Rachel Dolhun, MD, suggests limiting exposure to news. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Staying glued to the television, waiting for the latest numbers on coronavirus infections and deaths is not particularly healthy.

“Too much news can lead to anxiety. There’s a lot of news coming out nonstop, and it’s important to stay updated,” she said, warning that there comes a point when enough is enough. “You do not have to be constantly inundated with news. Just look for credible sources.”

Unfamiliar sleep patterns also can lead to anxiety in Parkinson’s, research shows.

“Many people with Parkinson’s were already having problems falling asleep or staying asleep even before coronavirus,” she said. “Now that our routines are off, we’re at home all day. That’s why it’s especially important for people with Parkinson’s to keep a routine, even if they don’t have the same schedule as before.”

Dolhun graduated from the University of San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in biology, got her medical degree from Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and did her neurology residency and movement disorders fellowship at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Before joining MJFF, she had a private practice in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Foundation plans COVID-19 survey

MJFF has raised more than $900 million for research about Parkinson’s disease. Since 2017, it has conducted an online study, Fox Insight, which seeks to learn more about life with Parkinson’s by capturing the experiences of people with and without the disease.

Participants complete study visits — online surveys about health, symptoms and lifestyle factors — every 90 days. Fox Insight is open to any English speaker 18 or older, and is the world’s largest Parkinson’s patient-reported outcomes group, with 46,600 participants.

Bastiaan Bloem, neurologist
Dutch neurologist Bastiaan Bloem, MD, is one of the world’s top experts on Parkinson’s disease. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

In coming weeks, the foundation will launch a Fox Insight survey that specifically focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on people with Parkinson’s.

In fact, several leading experts worry that the global COVID-19 pandemic could have immediate, detrimental effects on Parkinson’s patients.

Dutch neurologist Bas Bloem, MD, a professor at Radboud University Nimegen Medical Center in the Netherlands, recently told Parkinson’s News Today that while Parkinson’s patients do not have a higher risk of attracting coronavirus, “we do think they are more at risk of experiencing the severe complications” of this disease.

“We know, for example, that exercise suppresses the symptoms of Parkinson’s, whereas this crisis forces people to stay at home. And it also leads to chronic stress — and Parkinson’s patients are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of stress,” he said.

Bloem and a colleague, Rick C. Helmich, MD, outlined those concerns in a commentary article, “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Parkinson’s Disease: Hidden Sorrows and Emerging Opportunities,” that was published April 3 in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease.

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During COVID-19 Outbreak, MJFF Creates Information and Resource Hub

COVID-19 and Parkinson's

To support the global Parkinson’s disease community during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) is spotlighting its new information and resource hub.

The dedicated site includes webinarspodcasts, online educational events, insights and tips regarding PD and the coronavirus, and a virtual events hub to see how the community is staying connected.

“COVID-19 is testing us all in ways we never imagined,” said Michael J. Foxactor and MJFF founder, in a video accompanying the announcement. “Around the globe, individuals, families, and nations are rising to this challenge with courage and grace. “…Together we will pull through this, and be stronger than ever.”

Today (April 29) at noon EDT, the organization will present a 30-minute webinar about how to participate in Fox Insight, the MJFF’s online clinical study aimed at providing the research community with critical insight into the experience, genetics, and variability of Parkinson’s. (Register here.)

Recent webinars are now available on demand and via podcast. In one, panelists discuss how the Parkinson’s care and research community is responding to COVID-19, as well as actions patients and caregivers can take during the pandemic. In another, experts discuss strategies — including mindfulness and meditation — for coping with Parkinson’s during this uncertain time.

The hub also features educational events from the MJFF’s Parkinson’s IQ + You sessions, which have been moved online. In collaboration with the Parkinson’s Disease Education Consortium, an on-demand presentation discusses telemedicine and how it can work for Parkinson’s patients. The event also features a conversation with a patient and care partner about optimizing virtual doctor visits.

In the MJFF’s “Ask the MD” program, Rachel Dolhun, MD and vice president of MJFF medical communications, offers practical tips and insights on COVID-19 and Parkinson’s disease. Topics include “Coronavirus and Parkinson’s,” “Staying Active,” “Easing Mood Changes and Isolation,” Living with Parkinson’s Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic,” “Smell Loss in Coronavirus and Parkinson’s Disease,” “What We Know and Don’t Yet Know,” and “Making the Most of Your Telemedicine Doctor Visit.”

For more information and updates on managing your health during this unprecedented period, you can follow the MJFF on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Patients and caregivers are invited to share across those sites how they are coping. Responses could be featured in the #TogetherAtHome global campaign that seeks to encourage a united pandemic front.

Because many institutions are prioritizing the public health crisis, many foundation grantees are feeling the pinch. That motivated the MJFF to establish for scientists FAQs: Coronavirus (COVID-19) & Research Support. The site is for current grantees and applicants, and answers questions related to COVID-19.

“Our commitment to these researchers, and to you, is to keep critical Parkinson’s research moving forward with as little disruption as possible by being flexible and responsive to their needs as the situation evolves,” the foundation stated. “Our staff continues to work with urgency and determination to move our programs forward.”

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Nitrome Raises $38M to Bring Potential Enzyme Treatment into Clinical Trials

neuron replacement therapy

Nitrome Biosciences has raised $38 million in Series A financing to advance its lead program toward clinical trials for Parkinson’s disease (PD) and other age-related disorders.

“This financing will enable Nitrome to advance our mission of impacting the lives of patients with neurodegenerative and other age-related diseases,” said Irene Griswold-Prenner, PhD, Nitrome founder and CEO, in a press release.

Nitrome’s therapies targeting Parkinson’s aim to inhibiting a newly identified enzyme the company calls synuclein nitrase. According to the company, this enzyme causes or speeds the nitration — a type of chemical modification caused by cellular stress — and buildup of alpha-synuclein, a PD hallmark. Nitrome hopes to evaluate in a pilot study whether blocking or impeding this enzyme might slow or halt Parkinson’s progression.

Aggregation of alpha-synuclein — the main component of PD Lewy bodies — is found in the brain as well as the peripheral autonomic nervous system, which ultimately impacts breathing and digestion.

A nitrated form of the protein can be detected in salivary gland tissue of Parkinson’s patients. Since nitrated alpha-synuclein is present in early disease stages, it has the potential to be a promising disease biomarker.

Nitrome is also seeking to expand application of its platform technology to other age-related diseases, like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

“Nitrome’s breakthrough science is paving the way for novel, disease-modifying therapies, said Henrijette Richter, PhD, a  managing partner of Sofinnova Partners and a new Nitrome board member. “Nitrome’s team is made up of highly respected neuroscientists accomplished in drug discovery. The company is well-positioned to potentially transform the lives of Parkinson’s patients and others who suffer from age-related diseases.”

The funding was co-led by Sofinnova and AbbVie Ventures, and included the Dementia Discovery Fund, Mission Bay Capital, and Alexandria Venture Investments.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research awarded Nitrome a Target Advancement grant of an undisclosed amount in June 2019 to help support further development of potential PD therapies.

Roughly 7 million to 10 million individuals globally have Parkinson’s disease, including some 1 million in the United States.

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MJFF Supports Lundbeck Research in Diagnosing Parkinson’s

Lundbeck grant

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF) is supporting efforts by pharmaceutical company Lundbeck to find a new way to diagnose Parkinson’s Disease patients earlier and more effectively.

With a $1.3 million DKK (Danish krone) grant ($197,000 U.S.), Lundbeck plans to develop and validate a diagnostic test that uses the cerebrospinal fluid that flows in and around the brain and spinal cord. Such a tool could speed initial treatments to patients. Currently, there are no specific tests to confirm Parkinson’s.

Study results will be shared with the pharmaceutical industry, academia and the Parkinson’s community in general.

“We are pleased to receive this grant from The Michael J. Fox Foundation,” Johan Luthman, executive vice president for research and development, Lundbeck, said in a press release. “We still see a great unmet medical need in Parkinson’s disease today, and hopefully this research can help diagnose the disease earlier and thereby improve the outcomes for patients,” he said.

The test that Denmark-based Lundbeck hopes to develop is known as a biomarker assay, a tool that can measure various substances in the body. Specifically, the assay seeks to gauge levels of Parkinson’s-associated alpha-synuclein. Parkinson’s is characterized by aggregates of this protein in the nervous system, particularly in the brain’s dopamine-producing neurons. However, how these aggregates form isn’t fully understood.

Nearly 20% of individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s have a different disease with symptoms similar to those commonly experienced by Parkinson’s patients, Lundbeck said. The main motor Parkinson’s symptoms include tremor, slowness of movement (bradykinesia), muscle stiffness, postural instability, gait difficulties and vocal changes. Non-motor symptoms range from depression and anxiety to hallucinations, memory problems and dementia.

For diagnoses, clinicians usually rely on symptoms, imaging tests and a levodopa test, in which a neurologist recommends a sufficient dose of the Parkinson’s therapy to see if it helps symptoms.

“A biological marker of Parkinson’s disease would transform patient care and research, allowing earlier and more accurate diagnosis and more efficient therapeutic testing,” said Luis Oliveira, PhD, MJFF associate director of research programs. “Aggregated alpha-synuclein is a leading biomarker candidate, and our Foundation is pleased to support Lundbeck toward measurements of this pathological protein.”

The nonprofit organization previously has supported Lundbeck projects focused on Parkinson’s antibodies, understanding the LRRK2 gene — whose mutated form is one of the most common genetic causes of Parkinson’s — and two new disease targets.

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Fox Trial Finder Revamped to Help More Enroll in Clinical Trials

Fox Trial Finder

To make it easier for Parkinson’s (PD) patients and healthy volunteers to take part in clinical trials, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF) is introducing a redesigned version of its Fox Trial Finder clinical study matching tool.

“At the Foundation, our single urgent goal is to eliminate Parkinson’s disease,” Sohini Chowdhury, MJFF’s deputy CEO, said in a press release. “It will take the efforts of all of us to better connect the millions impacted by the disease worldwide to opportunities that could advance breakthroughs in treatments and ultimately a cure.”

Chowdhury said the new online Fox Trial Finder will help offset the burden of trial recruitment. Due to a lack of volunteers, 85% of clinical studies face delays, and some 30% never get started, she added.

The finder is powered by WCG’s CenterWatch iConnect platform for ease of use. WCG provides services and technologies aimed at improving clinical trial quality and efficiency.

iConnect also lets trial sponsors establish and manage recruitment efforts from one platform, enabling them to gauge each part of each study’s enrollment strategy. The potential result is better predictability and lower outreach costs.

“We are proud to be accelerating research and moving our mission forward to get safer, more effective treatments into the hands of patients living with Parkinson’s disease as efficiently as possible while maintaining the highest quality and ethical research standards,” said Donald A. Deieso, PhD, executive chairman and CEO of WCG. “MJFF’s decision to redesign its new Fox Trial Finder on our iConnect platform will make clinical research much more accessible and easier to navigate for patients and their families.”

Touted as having the world’s most expansive roster of recruiting clinical trials, WCG CenterWatch iConnect is visited monthly by more than 250,000 people seeking information about studies for themselves or others. In addition, the platform falls in the top three of most study-related search results overall.

“MJFF’s Fox Trial Finder has traditionally been one of the gold standards in matching patients to clinical trials,” said Lisa LaLuna, WCG’s senior vice president for patient advocacy. “We are honored to provide MJFF with a more user-friendly version for their Parkinson’s community of patients, families and supporters around the globe.”

Anyone wishing to try the new trial matching tool can go here. At the site, visitors may search for applicable disorders — currently, it reports that 412 Parkinson’s trials are recruiting — and get general information about clinical investigations.

An estimated seven to 10 million individuals globally have Parkinson’s, the most common age-related neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s.

The Foundation funds Parkinson’s research with a goal of finding a cure for Parkinson’s, and better therapies until then.

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New Large-Scale Data Portal Will Promote Parkinson’s Treatment Development

data portal

The Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP) for Parkinson’s (PD) has opened a data portal with de-identified information from 4,298 Parkinson’s patients and healthy control subjects for use by scientists seeking new treatments for the progressive neurodegenerative disease.

With unprecedented access to a data pool of this scale, investigators now can examine intricate data sets and conduct full-scale genomic analyses.

“AMP PD is a true example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts,” said Walter Koroshetz, MD, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), in a press release. “The combination of many data sets could allow researchers greater power to analyze potential biomarkers for Parkinson’s disease. This effort follows other AMP programs which have the shared goal of changing the way we go about the business of studying disease.”

Launched in 2014, the AMP is a public-private partnership between the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), multiple biopharmaceutical and life sciences companies, and non-profit organizations. Its goal is to transform the current model for developing new diagnostics and therapies by collaboratively identifying and validating promising biological treatment targets. The overarching mission is to develop new diagnostics and therapies relatively faster and at less cost.

Initial projects included Alzheimer’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.

Last January, the AMP project on PD was launched. Managed by the Foundation of the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), the project includes the NIH, FDA, the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) for Parkinson’s Research, Celgene, Verily Life Sciences, Pfizer, Sanofi and GSK.

This project’s aim is to speed therapy development by providing the expertise and support necessary to learn which biomarkers demonstrate the most promise for predicting PD and disease progression. Biomarkers are molecular disease indicators.

“One important part of this platform is that, in addition to providing a place for storing complex data, we are also providing the tools to analyze that data within the platform itself,” said Debra Babcock, MD, PhD, NINDS program director and co-chair of the AMP PD steering committee. “In this way, we are bringing scientists to the data, which will increase opportunities for collaboration.”

Data in the officially named AMP PD Knowledge Portal was collected through the MJFF, NINDS and several other programs, studies and institutions. It includes information from samples of DNA, RNA, plasma, and cerebrospinal fluid, which is the liquid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. The portal also offers a platform that can assimilate additional types and sources of data. For example, there is an upcoming study involving proteomics, the large-scale study of proteins.

With the longitudinal data in the portal, scientists can study patients’ information throughout the disease course. And, the data have been harmonized, allowing for comparison of information from different programs, and providing best practices for how to incorporate into the platform data from the PD community.

“The AMP model has provided a unique platform for bringing together diverse patient cohorts, advances in technology and scientific expertise to study Parkinson’s disease on a scale that has not been attempted before,” said David Wholley, senior vice president, research partnerships, FNIH. “With the AMP PD Knowledge Portal, we are helping the scientific community worldwide to fast-track discoveries that we hope will ultimately help Parkinson’s disease patients and their families.”

Scientists may visit this site to apply for access to the knowledge portal and interact with the data set.

Globally, roughly 7 to 10 million individuals have Parkinson’s, the second most common neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s disease.

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Collaborators Awarded Bachmann-Strauss Prize for Excellence in Dystonia Research

research grants

Investigative collaborators from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and the University of Rome Tor Vergata in Italy have been awarded the fifth annual Bachmann-Strauss Prize for Excellence in Dystonia Research.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) for Parkinson’s Research presented the awards recently to UAB’s David G. Standaert, MD, PhD, and John N. Whitaker professor and chairman of neurology, and to the University of Rome Tor Vergata’s Antonio Pisani, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology.

The award is for significant contributions to dystonia research, and comes with an unrestricted grant of $100,000 to support further joint research. Also meant to motivate the next generation of investigators, the award is part of a partnership announced in 2014 between the MJFF and the Bachmann-Strauss Dystonia & Parkinson Foundation (BSDPF).

“Drs. Pisani and Standaert have made significant strides in plotting the cellular dysfunction that leads to dystonia,” said Bonnie Strauss, BSDPF founder, MJFF board member, and a dystonia patient, in a press release. “This team has laid the groundwork for development and testing of new therapies to help those living with dystonia.”

A generally poorly understood movement disorder characterized by painful, protracted muscle contractions that cause abnormal movements and postures, dystonia is both a distinct disorder and a common symptom of Parkinson’s disease. Dystonia symptoms usually begin in one body region — such as the neck, face, vocal cords, arm, or leg — then may spread to other areas.

Having co-authored their first published work in 2006, Standaert and Pisani have collaborated on nine research papers detailing dystonia’s pathology. The investigators, who are also practicing clinicians, have examined the role and relationship of neurotransmitter activity in dystonia, and have profiled a dopamine imbalance and acetylcholine activity in a condition type that usually begins in adolescence.

“We are honored to receive the prestigious Bachmann-Strauss Prize,” Pisani said. “It means we are working in the right direction for our findings to be recognized with such an award, and that we can continue building knowledge toward new treatments and cures.”

Added Standaert: “This work with Antonio is a very productive collaboration that has been an engine for discovery. There is a tremendous need for more research in the field, and more researchers. I hope this recognition from Bachmann-Strauss and MJFF will demonstrate to young investigators that there is a support and encouragement for research in dystonia and will attract more of them to this field.”

The researchers will use award funds to collaboratively study multiple models of a genetic form of dystonia to better understand the mutation’s effect.

The Bachmann-Strauss prize is intended to honor current research, an individual’s past body of work, or both.

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U.S. Defense Department Funds Research Into Parkinson’s and Exercise

The U.S. Defense Department has awarded researchers from Northeast Ohio Medical University (NOMU) and Michigan State University (MSU) about $1 million each to study the effect of exercise at different stages of Parkinson’s disease.

The three-year grant went to longtime collaborators Sheila Fleming, PhD, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at NOMU and Caryl Sortwell, PhD, a translational neuroscience professor at MSU.

“It’s a major award for both of us,” Fleming said in a news release. “We had been working together for many years because our interest and work are very complementary. Ultimately, it’s about a $2-million grant. She gets half and I get half.”

Fleming, who was awarded $954,566 by the U.S. Army Medical Research Acquisition Activity, said she will work on behavioral aspects of the study while Sortwell will handle pathological events.

The project, titled “Exercise Effects on Synuclein Aggregation, Neuroinflammation and Neurodegeneration,” will analyze the impact of exercise in an optimized preclinical disease model. That will include examining mechanisms associated with the central characterization of Parkinson’s — the buildup of toxic alpha-synuclein aggregates, neuroinflammation, and expression of certain molecules in the brain called trophic factors.

Using a progressive Parkinson’s disease animal model, Sortwell is charting the course and development over time of pathological events in the brain. Fleming is examining how the pathological occurrences relate to changes in motor and non-motor symptoms. Together, the researchers are examining the impact of introducing exercise at different stages of Parkinson’s progression.

Most scientists studying exercise in Parkinson’s have used what are called toxin models, which solely target the dopamine system, Fleming said. The chemical dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter and is essential in sending messages from the brain to direct muscle movement and coordination. As more dopamine-producing neurons die, dopamine levels slowly and progressively decrease until patients are unable to control normal movements.

But those models have issues related to reproducibility and a lack of understanding of the biological properties of alpha-synuclein pathology. Fleming and Sortwell are using a newer model supported by the Michael J. Fox Foundation called PFF — for pre-formed synthetic fibrils — to elucidate mechanisms of alpha-synuclein-induced pathology. In this model, fibrils are injected into animals, and researchers track the appearance of symptoms.

Studies have already shown the likelihood that alpha-synuclein clumping begins in the back of the brain and proceeds to the front, a pathology that may be related to non-motor Parkinson’s symptoms such as depression, anxiety, reduced sense of smell, and cognitive impairment.

Fleming and Sortwell will look at the effect of exercise on both non-motor and motor symptoms (such as problems walking) to determine what symptoms manifest and in what order. This information could lead to earlier diagnoses, and provide a non-pharmacological, low-cost therapeutic strategy for patients, including veterans.

Currently, Fleming said, by the time individuals first seek help for symptoms, they have typically already lost at least half their dopamine neurons.

“Slowing the progression of the disease could have a huge benefit, especially since patients aren’t usually diagnosed until between 50 and 60 years of age,” she said. “So, if you could slow it, that could have a potentially huge impact on the quality of life of patients.”

The scientists presented their project in October at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

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