UAB-HudsonAlpha partner to examine Parkinson’s genes

Currently, there are medications that can ease the symptoms of Parkinson disease, but there is no treatment available to stop the progression of the disease.

How do you glean important new information about Parkinson disease? According to Huntsville philanthropist John Jurenko, one way is to put Alabama's top biomedical investigators on the task.


David Standaert

"My motivation for funding the UAB-HudsonAlpha project is to use the outstanding capabilities of the two institutions and their expert investigators," said Jurenko. The philanthropist recently made a collective gift of $500,000 to the two organizations for research into treatments that will slow, cure or even prevent the disease.

The UAB-HudsonAlpha Collaborative Project in the Genetics and Genomics of Parkinson Disease is two-fold.  Under the direction of David Standaert, M.D., Ph.D., the John and Juanelle Strain Professor and interim chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Rick Myers, Ph.D., president and director of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, the team will use advanced technology to look at gene expression and genetic variation to provide new knowledge about the cause, effects and treatments of Parkinson disease.

Parkinson disease is a motor-system disorder that results from the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells. The four major symptoms of Parkinson disease are tremor, rigidity, bradykinesia (slowness of movement) and impaired balance.  Typically, the disease affects people age 50 and older.  There are medications that can ease the symptoms, but there is no treatment available to stop the progression of the disease.

The project will include an unprecedented study of the effects of a neurological disease on expression of nearly all the genes in the human genome. "We now have the capability to study the effects of human disease on all 22,000 human genes," said Myers.  In this part of the project, researchers will compare brain tissue of 100 individuals who had Parkinson disease, against 100 individuals who were free of the disease.  Ultra-high-throughput DNA-sequencing technologies that have been developed, improved and implemented at HudsonAlpha will be employed.

The comprehensive picture will provide new insight into the nature of the disease and new treatments for its motor and non-motor impacts.

The second part of the project focuses on levodopa, the most effective single therapy for Parkinson disease. Unfortunately, levodopa causes adverse side effects in some patients to include involuntary movement or cessation of voluntary movement. After five years of therapy, about half of patients treated with levodopa have these side-effects, referred to as dyskinesia.

Using data and samples from patients at the UAB Movement Disorders Clinic and next-generation DNA-sequencing technologies, this study will identify genetic variants associated with levodopa-induced-dyskinesia. The research could have a very important and immediate impact on patient therapy.

"If we can discover the genetic basis of risk for dyskinesia, we would be able to use levodopa more safely in patients who are likely to be resistant to dyskinesia, while avoiding levodopa in those at high risk for complications," said Standaert.

All data produced during the project will be deposited in public databases for use by scientists from around the world. The project has been initiated and should be completed by the end of 2012.

"This is only the beginning," said Jurenko. "More work and more money will be required to achieve our goal to slow or stop the progress of the disease.