NIEHS announces $20 million, three-center effort to pin-point environmental triggers of Parkinson's

August 26, 2002

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health, today announced five-year grants totaling $20 million for three centers to conduct research on the relationship between exposures to environmental agents and subsequent Parkinson's disease.

The announcement was made this morning at the Parkinson's Institute, in Sunnyvale, Calif., where one of the centers will be located. The other centers will be at Emory University, Atlanta, Ga., and the University of California at Los Angeles.

NIEHS Director Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., said in announcing the new funding, "Our best chance for finding successful treatments for persons suffering with Parkinson's disease is to understand more about what triggers the disease. Even better, this research may lead to ways to prevent Parkinson's disease in the first place."

A progressive disorder characterized by muscular rigidity and tremors, slow movement and impaired balance and coordination, Parkinson's disease affects between 1 and 1.5 million people in the U.S., with 50,000 new cases reported each year, NIH estimates.

Recent findings suggest that Parkinson's may result from a combination of a person's exposure to harmful environmental agents and the person's inherited susceptibility. The disease is marked by the death of cells in the brain that produce and release the neurotransmitter dopamine. Current drug therapies, which attempt to replace the lost dopamine, can relieve some symptoms but do not cure or slow the disease.

The directors of the new centers, the leadership of national patient advocacy groups and representatives of the California Congressional delegation were invited to participate in today's announcement and stay for a light lunch and an afternoon discussion of current research. [Reporters are also invited to remain after the announcement for lunch and the scientific reports.]

The three new centers will be located at:

The Parkinson's Institute, Sunnyvale, Calif., with J. William Langston, M.D., as center director. (For further information call (408) 542-5632.) The center will examine risks associated with pesticides and heavy metals, possible protective effects of tobacco and caffeine, the underlying mechanisms of dopamine cell death, and genetically determined susceptibility traits for Parkinson's disease.

Emory University, Atlanta, Ga., with J. Timothy Greenamyre, M.D., Ph.D., as center director. For further information call (404) 727-3727. The center will develop new cellular and animal models to study gene-environment interactions in the development of Parkinson's disease and will focus on how pesticides interact with the proteins that package dopamine within nerves, and the cellular machinery that degrades abnormal proteins.

The University of California at Los Angeles, with Marie-Francoise Chesselet, M.D., Ph.D., as center director, (310) 267-1782 or (310) 206-7458. The center will study how variations in genes that regulate dopamine levels within neurons may play a role in the increased risk of Parkinson's disease associated with pesticides, using several model systems as well as human cells and DNA samples from two large and unique California studies of Parkinson's disease.

Dr. Olden said that the three centers will conduct their research independently but will also have the benefit of acting as a consortium, collaborating and taking advantage of each other's knowledge and expertise. He said, "We have some good clues about what environmental agents and genes may be important in Parkinson's disease. This new consortium should bring together the right mix of scientists so that these leads can be pursued quickly."

J. William Langston, MD., founder and CEO of the Parkinson's Institute, said, "This could be the final chapter of our search for the cause of Parkinson's disease. Under the auspices and funding of NIEHS, three major research institutes will collaborate to find the environmental and genetic origins of Parkinson's. Working together we can accelerate the pace of research with a dream team of multi-disciplinary experts."

Joan Samuelson, founder of the Parkinson's Action Network, said, "The environmental link provides major clues in unraveling Parkinson's remaining mysteries. The cure will be accelerated by this tremendous commitment of funding and focused effort. That translates into less suffering for the million Americans with Parkinson's. We are filled with hope and gratitude by this endeavor."

Deborah W. Brooks, executive director of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, said, "The NIEHS and Director Olden have designed a creative approach to targeting this exciting area of Parkinson's research. Structuring collaboration among these three strong multidisciplinary teams should surely accelerate progress in what we continue to believe is a winnable war against Parkinson's Disease."

NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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