Parkinson's study granted $6.8 million

Researchers at UBC's Neurodegenerative Disorders Centre have been awarded $6.8 million from the Medical Research Council of Canada (MRC) to investigate Parkinson's disease.

"This is a significant investment that will help us to improve the lives of people who suffer from Parkinson's," says Dr. Donald Calne, the centre's director.

The funding consists of a five-year operating grant and a $1.4 million equipment grant, $1 million of which will be used towards the purchase of a new positron emission topography (PET) scanner that will provide high resolution images of the brain.

The operating grant allows Calne and a team of 13 researchers to continue a collaboration called Degenerative Disorders of the Motor Pathways, which comprises six projects aimed at finding better and more specific means of treating the disease.

Symptoms of Parkinson's include muscle rigidity, tremor, slowness of movement and difficulty with speech, swallowing and balance leading to total disability. Most people are diagnosed after age 55 when significant damage has already occurred in the brain.

The disease destroys brain cells that produce dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain that relays signals to nerves, resulting in muscle movement.

Treatment of the disease focuses on replacing dopamine in the brain but the drug has serious side effects, including increased involuntary movement, particularly after prolonged use.

The projects will look at the natural history and cause of Parkinson's disease using brain imaging and other techniques. Researchers will also focus on the role of dopamine and the long-term effects on the brain of stimulating the dopamine system.

Another study examines the use of electro-convulsive therapy which, when used to treat depression in Parkinson's patients, results in improved motor ability.

Parkinson's may result from environmental factors superimposed on a genetic predisposition. One of the projects will investigate the role of these occupational risk factors which include exposure to viral infections.

Other researchers involved in the collaboration are: TRIUMF research scientist Michael Adam, Neurology Asst. Prof. Doris Doudet, Jim Holden from the University of Wisconsin, Neurology Asst. Prof. Chong Lee, Pathology Asst. Prof. Ian Mackenzie, Health Care and Epidemiology Assoc. Prof. Stephen Marion, Psychiatry Prof. Emerita Edith McGeer, Neurology Assoc. Prof. Thomas Ruth, Medicine and Statistics Prof. Michael Schulzer, Neurology Prof. Jon Stoessl, director of Occupational Hygiene Kay Teschke, Neurology Assoc. Prof. Joseph Tsui, and head of Psychiatry, Prof. Athanasios Zis.

In addition to their own studies, the group will collaborate with teams from England, Japan, Germany and the U.S. to study the genetic basis of Parkinson's and the use of tissue transplants to treat the disease.

Calne chaired the XIII International Congress on Parkinson's Disease recently held in Vancouver and attended by more than 2,000 physicians and researchers.

More than 80,000 Canadians suffer from the disease which costs taxpayers millions of dollars annually in drug and other treatment expenses, disability pensions and long-term care costs.