June 9, 2006

Parkinson’s research receives boost from actor’s foundation

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Jonathan Haines, Ph.D.

Parkinson’s research receives boost from actor’s foundation

Jonathan Haines, Ph.D., has received a grant from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research to search for genes that play a role in Parkinson's disease.

Haines, director of the Center for Human Genetics Research, is studying a population of Ohio Amish with more than 15 individuals affected with Parkinson's. In preliminary work, he and his collaborators have identified three novel genomic areas that are linked to the disease. Now, with the support of the $740,000, three-year grant, they will go after the genes in those regions.

“We have very strong evidence for where to look for novel genes linked to Parkinson's disease,” Haines said. “We can dig right into that.”

The Ohio Amish are a valuable population for genetic studies, Haines noted. The population is genetically isolated and has more uniform environmental exposures, compared with the general population.

Because environmental influences are a concern as causative agents for Parkinson's disease, this uniformity of exposures among the Amish is an asset to his group's studies, Haines said.

“We believe that by studying this population, we're reducing the amount of environmental variability. So the variability that is there — who has Parkinson's and who doesn't — is more likely to be genetic,” Haines said. “And because we can trace all of the Parkinson's patients back into a common family pedigree, we can make strong use of genetics tools to find causative genes.”

Parkinson's disease is a chronic, progressive motor system disorder, resulting from the loss of nerve cells in a region of the brain called the substantia nigra. The loss of these cells leaves patients unable to direct or control their movement in a normal manner.

The exact role of genetics in Parkinson's disease is not clear, Haines said. There are a few single gene mutations that cause the disease in rare families, and a handful of mutations that account for a very small proportion of the disease.

Identifying genes linked to Parkinson's opens a door to finding the root cause of the disease, Haines said.

“Clearly, identifying the genes is just the first step toward understanding the biological dysfunction that leads to Parkinson's disease. And understanding that biology will allow us to identify new targets for treatments and hopefully preventive measures as well.”

Haines's project is one of seven selected this year by the Fox Foundation's “Clinical Discovery Program,” which provides funding for potentially high-impact Parkinson's clinical research projects.

“Clinical Discovery is an important element of the Foundation's continued focus on driving clinical and translational research,” Gene Johnson, Ph.D., the Foundation's chief scientific adviser, said in a news release.

“We are enthusiastic and optimistic about the potential of the 2006 program not only to answer enduring questions about the disease, but also to help speed meaningful therapies and interventions to millions living with Parkinson's.”

The Fox Foundation was established six years ago by actor Michael J. Fox after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. It has funded nearly $74 million in research to date, either directly or through partnerships.