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Salk Institute receives $2.3 million grant to develop stem cell-based treatments for Parkinson's disease

Fred Gage

Fred Gage

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has awarded the Salk Institute a $2.3 million grant for translational research focusing on developing a novel stem cell-based therapy for Parkinson's disease. Led by Fred H. Gage, a professor in the Laboratory of Genetics and holder of the Vi and John Adler Chair for Research on Age-Related Neurodegenerative Diseases, the research will be a joint effort among Salk researchers; Christopher Glass, a professor of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego; and collaborators in Germany. The project will seek to replicate Parkinson's disease in the lab using human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells derived from patients suffering from the disorder, in order to investigate the role of inflammation in the condition.

Parkinson's is a chronic, progressive neurological disease that usually occurs later in life and is linked to decreased dopamine production, the chemical messenger involved in communication between the brain and the muscles. The most common neurodegenerative movement disorder, it is characterized by motor impairment such as slowness of movements, shaking and gait disturbances.

"Given that age is the most consistent risk factor for Parkinson's, and we have an aging population, it is of the utmost importance that we unravel the cellular, molecular and genetic causes of the highly specific cell death characteristic of the disease and find new therapies to limit the social, economic and emotional impact," says Gage.

In the past, scientists had been limited to studying the brains of those with Parkinson's via imaging technologies or postmortem brain tissues, and most studies to find better drugs for the condition were done with mice and often failed when tested in patients. Now the ability to obtain iPS cells from patients' skin cells, which can be reprogrammed into neurons, provides researchers with a model for studying the pathological development of Parkinson's in a human system and, the group hopes, to identify key molecular events involved in the early stages of the disease, which can be exploited as potential points of therapeutic intervention.