Researchers awarded $7.7m to map the development of Parkinson’s disease

Sonia Gandhi

Sonia Gandhi

A team from the Francis Crick Institute, UCL and Cambridge University has been awarded $7.7million to identify the genetic and biological factors that cause Parkinson’s disease. Their project could help researchers find new ways to treat the condition. 

The team, co-led by Sonia Gandhi, Group Leader of the Crick’s Neurodegeneration Biology laboratory, has received the grant from ASAP (Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s). This global research initiative funds teams that are working on understanding the basic mechanisms that contribute to the development and progression of Parkinson’s disease.

In the UK, around 145,000 people are living with Parkinson’s disease, an incurable neurological condition caused by a loss of nerve cells in the brain. People living with the disease can experience tremor, muscle stiffness, and problems with walking, balance, talking and memory. 

In their project, the research team will develop a map that illustrates how Parkinson’s affects the brain, in the earliest stages of the disease. Unlike existing maps, which are based on the later stages of the disease, it will allow researchers to study how the disease starts in the human brain.

The map will be created by using advanced imaging methods that look for single molecules called oligomers in the brain, which mark the very early signs of Parkinson’s. 

we hope to be able to provide more detail about the underlying genetic causes of Parkinson's
Sonia Gandhi

Using this map, the team will identify the cells in the brain that are first affected by the disease. And by looking at all the genes expressed in those specific cells, they will build a model that shows how genetic factors affect pathways that cause Parkinson’s.

In the laboratory, they will then modify these genes in human stem cells, to better document and understand their effects over time.

Sonia Gandhi will provide expertise in detailed analyses of human brain and human stem cell models of disease. She says: “There’s a huge gap of knowledge about the earliest stages of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s but if we can identify which cells start to lose function first, we could pinpoint the underlying cause. 

“We’ve brought together a team of physical chemists, geneticists, data scientists and neurobiologists, who all have their own expertise and bring different techniques to the table. Through this powerful combination, we hope to be able to provide more detail about the underlying genetic causes of Parkinson’s, and why some brain cells are susceptible to the disease while others remain resistant. 

“Critical to the ASAP initiative is building a unique resource, a Parkinson’s brain map, and also making it freely available to others, which we hope will help the research community to develop new theories about the disease, explore its mechanisms and identify new therapeutic targets.”

Professor Nicholas Wood from UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology, says: “We are delighted with this major investment in basic Parkinson’s research. We will use state of the art molecular microscopic tools to identify the cells that are principally affected by the disease and use detailed transcriptomic analyses to understand the molecular events that lead to neurodegeneration.”


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