February 3, 2011

Stem Cell Leader Awarded $2.3 Million Grant for Parkinson's

Stem cell based treatment to focus on Parkinson's disease

Salk News

Stem Cell Leader Awarded $2.3 Million Grant for Parkinson’s

Stem cell based treatment to focus on Parkinson's disease

LA JOLLA, CA—The Salk Institute has been awarded a $2.3 million grant by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) for translational research focusing on developing a novel stem cell based therapy for Parkinson’s disease.

The research will concentrate on studying human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells derived from patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease to replicate the disorder in the lab and investigate the role of inflammation in the cause and progression of the neurodegeneration typical of the disease.

Led by Fred H. Gage, Ph.D., a professor in the Salk’s Laboratory of Genetics and holder of the Vi and John Adler Chair for Research on Age-Related Neurodegenerative Diseases, the grant will fund a joint effort between Salk researchers, the team of Christopher Glass, Ph.D., a professor of Medicine and Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and international collaborators in Germany.

dopaminergic neurons

These images show dopaminergic neurons, the cell type implicated in Parkinson’s Disease, differentiated from human pluripotent stem cells.

Image: Courtesy of Leah Boyer, Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Parkinson’s disease 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, Parkinson’s disease 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 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,” said Gage.

Most studies to find better drugs to treat Parkinson’s disease were done with mice and often failed when tested in patients. In the past, scientists had been limited to study the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease via imaging technologies or postmortem brain tissues. Now, the ability to obtain iPS cells from patients’ skin cells, which can be reprogrammed into neurons provides researchers with a model to study the pathological development of Parkinson’s in a human system.

The main goal of the collaborative effort is to identify key molecular events involved in the early stages of the disease, which can be exploited as potential points of therapeutic intervention.

“This is an extremely exciting development – the ability to create stem cells from skin cells taken from patients with Parkinson’s disease, then use those stem cells to create networks of neurons which can then be studied to give clues about the abnormal function of nerve cells in this debilitating disease – that would never have been conceived, let alone come to fruition, without the significant investment in regenerative medicine by CIRM,” said Salk president William R. Brody, M.D., Ph.D.

About the Salk Institute for Biological Studies:

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is one of the world’s preeminent basic research institutions, where internationally renowned faculty probe fundamental life science questions in a unique, collaborative, and creative environment. Focused both on discovery and on mentoring future generations of researchers, Salk scientists make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of cancer, aging, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and infectious diseases by studying neuroscience, genetics, cell and plant biology, and related disciplines.

Faculty achievements have been recognized with numerous honors, including Nobel Prizes and memberships in the National Academy of Sciences. Founded in 1960 by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, M.D., the Institute is an independent nonprofit organization and architectural landmark.

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