UAB joins ranks of national Udall Centers of Excellence in Parkinson’s disease

Researchers will delve into the role of inflammation and the immune system in the worsening of Parkinson’s disease as UAB is named a Udall Center of Excellence.

standaart 2016David Standaert, M.D., Ph.D.The University of Alabama at Birmingham has been invited to become one of nine Udall Centers of Excellence in Parkinson’s Disease Research by the National Institutes of Health. The Udall centers, begun in 1997, are funded by congressional legislation in honor of former U.S. Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona, who died in 1998 after a long battle with the disease.

The Alabama Udall Center will be led by David Standaert, M.D., Ph.D., the chair of the Department of Neurology and an international leader in Parkinson’s disease.

“UAB has a long history of important research in Parkinson’s disease,” said Standaert, the John Whitaker Endowed Chair of Neurology at UAB. “UAB President Ray Watts, a renowned clinician and researcher in Parkinson’s, was recruited to the Department of Neurology in 2003 to launch a world-class program. I joined UAB in 2006, and over the years we have worked together to develop a robust research enterprise in both clinical and basic science, and to provide care to persons with Parkinson’s from Alabama and across the country. Our Parkinson’s disease clinic will see more than 7,000 patient visits this year.”

The Alabama Udall Center will be established as the result of a new NIH award of nearly $10 million over five years. Standaert says the center will focus on the role of inflammation and immune response in the progression of Parkinson’s, which is a new approach to the disease.

“Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, which means it gets worse over time,” Standaert said. “There has been a lot of research on the triggers of the disease, such as genetics and environmental causes. We have gained a good understanding of how that fire gets lit, but we don’t know how it spreads. Our efforts will concentrate on the role of inflammation in the brain as a driver of the worsening of the disease.”

Standaert says the Udall designation builds on a previous P20 grant to UAB from the NIH’s National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which established a core collaborative team in Parkinson’s, demonstrated the university’s ability to recruit patients for clinical studies, developed and standardized models and methods, and created a process to study immunomodulation in animal models and humans with early disease.

“There has been a lot of research on the triggers of the disease, such as genetics and environmental causes. We have gained a good understanding of how that fire gets lit, but we don’t know how it spreads. Our efforts will concentrate on the role of inflammation in the brain as a driver of the worsening of the disease.”

The UAB center will launch three primary research efforts. Standaert will lead a clinical study of 60 newly diagnosed patients with Parkinson’s and 60 healthy controls that will look for signs of inflammation very early in the development of the disease. This arm will use PET imaging to look at changes in the blood and studies of spinal fluid to better understand the state of the immune system in newly diagnosed patients.

A second part of the Udall Center will focus on immunology and the role of the immune system through basic research. This arm, led by Etty Benveniste, Ph.D., Charlene A. Jones Endowed Chair in Neuroimmunology and professor in the Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology, will examine a signaling pathway known as JAK/STAT as a novel therapeutic strategy for Parkinson’s. The JAK/STAT pathway delivers communications from outside of a cell to the cell nucleus. Disruption of that pathway can lead to a variety of disorders, including immune disorders, and it may be a target for therapeutic intervention.

The center’s third major research focus will be on the LRRK2 kinase enzyme, which has been studied extensively in the lab of Andrew West, Ph.D., until recently co-director of the Center for Neurodegeneration and Experimental Therapeutics and the John A. and Ruth R. Jurenko Professor of Neurology at UAB and now a professor at Duke University, where he will continue his Udall Center work.

West’s lab has led groundbreaking research on mutations in LRRK2, which has been identified as one of the genetic causes of Parkinson’s. The lab will seek to determine if LRRK2 activation in bone marrow-derived immune cells promotes inflammation and neurodegeneration and, conversely, whether LRRK2 inhibition can block those actions.

In addition, a clinical research core will be directed by Talene Yacoubian, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of neurology, to aid in the recruitment of clinical research subjects, in collaboration with Columbia University.

Laura Volpicelli-Daley, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology, will lead an animal models core in support of the second and third arms of the center’s research.

“Becoming a Udall Center of Excellence in Parkinson’s disease is a major step for our research and clinical programs at UAB,” Standaert said. “The Udall Centers network is the central organizing point for Parkinson’s research in the United States. The establishment of this new Alabama Udall Center at UAB will be a catalyst. It will enable us to accelerate our own efforts and opens the doors for increased collaboration with the other leading research institutions in the nation. It will enable the critical work that needs to be done to find meaningful ways to slow or stop the progression of Parkinson’s disease.”

Udall Centers are also very involved in community outreach and education of the next generation of Parkinson’s clinicians and researchers. The Alabama Udall Center will work with the Parkinson Association of Alabama, the American Parkinson Disease Association, and other regional and national organizations to enhance communication between scientists and the community of people affected by Parkinson’s disease. The Udall Center will also provide training to physicians and health care providers on state-of-the-art approaches to diagnosis and treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s affects about 1 million people in the United States and 10 million worldwide.

“The cure for Parkinson’s disease still remains elusive; but if we can find a way to slow or stop the progression of the symptoms, we can help many people live full and active lives. We believe that the studies the Alabama Udall Center will conduct on the role of immune signaling can lead to the discovery of these desperately needed disease modifying treatments,” Standaert said.