UAB recognized nationally for Parkinson's Disease research

UAB joins nine other schools in the country as Udall Centers of Excellence in Parkinson's Disease Research.

When Dr. David Standaert came to UAB in 2006, his goal was to build a major Parkinson's Disease research center that would further efforts to slow the disease's progression. He and other were thrilled upon learning UAB was named a Udall Center of Excellence in Parkinson's Disease research.

"This is the beginning of something great," Dr. Standaert said. "Yes, it is a great honor to be recognized in this way, but it goes beyond that. They are creating a center that is going to carry us forward and hopefully towards the cure for Parkinson's."

Thanks to an award from the National Institutes of Health, UAB joins the ranks of eight other schools in the country dedicated to Parkinson's Disease research. Other schools involved include Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Emory University and others. These schools serve as a collaborative network in researching the disease. Over the next five years, the $10 million grant will fund UAB's research on the role of inflammation and immune response in the disease's progression, which Standaert, the Chair of UAB's Department of Neurology says has not been studied enough.

"Through our work and the work of others in the last five to seven years, the scientific community has really come together and taken the view that the immune system may play a very important role in Parkinson's," Standaert said. "We are going to try to investigate that and see if we can modify Parkinson's Disease to perhaps slow or prevent the disease through an immune-based treatment. There are several pieces to it. One is a study of human patients with Parkinson's. There will be about 120 patients involved, and they will get very detailed testing of their immune state, advanced brain imaging using positron emission topography, and will be followed through the course. There are several laboratory projects that are investigating particular parts of the immune system to see how they modify the Parkinson's process."

Standaert says they are looking for patients in the very early stages of Parkinson's who are not currently in any treatment. Standaert says it is during the early stage when the immune system plays the most important role, researchers believe.

"The face of Parkinson's Disease is tough because you know that they are really struggling with it," Assistant Professor of Neurology Ashley Harms said. "So as a researcher, it provides motivation to get into the lab, to look at these mechanisms and try to see if we can find something that would at least halt or at least stop the progression of the disease. A cure would be fantastic."

Standaert says they saw their first patient as part of the research on Tuesday. He calls this a major step forward for neurology at the university. UAB can reapply for the grant after its five years of funding are up, but Standaert says it is a competitive process and the university must deliver on research promises.

"I think it is reasonable that within five years, we can have a treatment that would change the course of the disease," Standaert said. "It might not be the cure entirely yet, but something that would slow the progress. When I talk to patients, one of the things I have often noticed is that they come in, they have certain symptoms, and their focus is not so much on their current situation. They may have some slowness, tremors, other characteristic features of Parkinson's. What they are worried about is the future. My patients worry about their future. If I can find a way to assure them that their future is going to be better, that we can slow this disease down, I think I would be very happy with that outcome. I think that is doable."

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