Strain Endowment Brings Powerhouse Researchers to UAB

A gift establishing the John T. and Juanelle D. Strain Endowed Chair in Neurology helps fund Dr. Haydeh Payami’s efforts to find a cure for Parkinson’s.

Haydeh Payami, Ph.D Haydeh Payami, Ph.D Geneticist Haydeh Payami, Ph.D., has spent the past two decades searching for a different type of DNA. In a series of studies she calls “fishing expeditions,” Payami has been trawling the genome for bits of DNA that can help explain the mysterious patterns seen in Parkinson’s disease: Why do smokers have a much lower risk of getting the disease? What role does the immune system play in Parkinson’s? Why do some people get the disease in their teens, while it appears in others in their late 80s?

She has already had several intriguing catches. If you have the right combination of genetic variations, she explains, a few cups of coffee per day could reduce your Parkinson’s risk by an astounding 87 percent. With other sets of genes, a nicotine patch — or some daily ibuprofen, or probiotic pills — could do the trick. “If you could identify people who are genetically susceptible and tell them what to do, or what to avoid, maybe you can prevent the disease from happening,” Payami said.

It’s a perfect example of the potential of personalized medicine. But there’s more. Payami is now expanding her work to Alzheimer’s disease, and the same techniques could revolutionize the study and treatment of many other conditions.

With a track record of success that includes several ground-breaking discoveries in Parkinson’s research, Payami was recruited to the UAB Department of Neurology in 2015, where she joined a team of Parkinson’s researchers and clinicians who are committed to finding a cure.

That recruitment was made possible in part because of a gift made almost 10 years ago by a couple who knew first-hand what people with Parkinson’s face each day. The John T. and Juanelle D. Strain Endowed Chair in Neurology, funded in 2006 through the Strain Family Foundation is now held by Payami, providing resources to power her efforts to find that cure.

Strain and his wife worked together in the construction industry, building homes, hotels and apartment houses across north and central Alabama. Strain was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1980, and for the next 20 years was Strain Endowment Brings Powerhouse Researchers to UAB treated at UAB by Dr. James Halsey. His family credits UAB with extending Strain’s life and improving his quality of life through cutting-edge medications, two surgeries, and excellent clinical care. After he passed away, his family established the endowed chair to support the pursuit of new treatments that would improve the lives of others with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders.

David G. Standaert, M.D., Ph.D., was the first holder of the Strain Chair; as chairman of the UAB Department of Neurology, he now holds the John N. Whitaker Endowed Chair. “The Strain Endowed Chair provides essential and ongoing support for our efforts to find the cure for Parkinson’s disease,” he said. “We are excited to have Dr. Payami on our team, as she is certain to accelerate our progress.

“Endowed chairs are a critical component to recruiting top investigators to any institution,” he added. “The generosity and foresight of the Strain family has given us support that is not only important now, but is also sustainable into the future.”

Payami is doubling her DNA collection, and tapping into the latest genetic sequencing and analysis systems. She will add 2,000 patients and 2,000 healthy controls from UAB’s renowned Parkinson’s clinics, and have access to the worldclass machines and analysts in HudsonAlpha’s Genomic Services Laboratory. “That will give us the power to do what we need to do,” Payami said.

For information on supporting Parkinson’s research: ktully@uab.edu