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How private giving translates to public dollars: One PD Scientistís Story

Nearly ten years ago, soon after receiving his doctorís degree, Michael Jakowec received a fellowship from the Parkinsonís Disease Foundation (PDF) to work in the research labs of Dr. Serge Przedborski at Columbia University on Parkinsonís research.

Not long after the fellowship ended, Dr. Jakowec, then based at the Parkinsonís Institute, California, applied to PDF again for support Ė this time, for one of its International Research Grants. His proposal: to work with the mouse model of Parkinsonís disease to identify proteins responsible for neuroplasticity (the re-growth of injured neurons) and thereby potentially identifying new therapeutic targets for treatment of Parkinsonís disease (PD).

The promising results of this initial study, led Dr. Jakowec - now an assistant professor at the University of Southern California (USC) to apply for and receive a second PDF grant in 2000, this one to help him investigate glutamate-dopamine interactions that may underlie the mechanism of neuroplasticity in this mouse model. The synergism between glutamate and dopamine may be critical both for the maintenance of proper motor function and for brain repair in times of neuronal injury, such as PD. His studies suggested that if we can understand the molecular mechanisms responsible for neuroplasticity we have the means to understand better how these processes work in patients with PD and other movement disorders. Dr Jakowecís results gave us a closer understanding of the molecular basis of the alteration in proteins, illustrating the capacity of the brain to repair and rearrange neuronal connections. This is important for Parkinsonís because as Dr. Jakowec commented in his report: ďsince a large number of dopaminergic neurons remain, even in the later stages of the disease, this in fact may provide a template to induce restorative neuroplasticity and consequently reverse clinical motor symptomsĒ.

Then came his first triumph as a young research scientist. The data collected as a direct result of the two PDF grants provided a foundation of preliminary data to support a major proposal by Dr. Jakowec to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the source of most federal funding for the neuro-sciences. His proposal, which placed in the top 10 percent of those competing in that year, resulted in a four-year award of $995,000 to support his work. The first aim of the project, which began last summer, is to define the role of dopamine-glutamate interactions in inducing neuroplasticity in the injured basal ganglia. It will then seek to determine if, and how, surviving neurons are able to spout and branch in injured regions of the brain, thereby compensating for lost neuronal connections.

Dr. Jakowecís research career to date exemplifies the objectives of the International Research Grants Program (known as ďIRGPĒ). Its overall purpose is to provide one-year seed grants of up to $40,000 to support the work of young research scientists who lack the track record that is usually necessary to secure major grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The IRGP, which is financed entirely by private contributions to PDF from individuals and was initiated in 1999 with the help of a matching grant from the Tuchman Foundation, attracts up to 80 applications every year. The applications are reviewed by a PDF scientific committee consisting of Parkinsonís specialists from Columbia University in NYC, Rush Presbyterian-St Lukeís Medical Center in Chicago and other centers. The committee judges applications according to the exacting standards employed by NIH.

The unique mission of IRGP is encapsulated in the word Ďseedí. Its purpose is to support scientists early in their careers in investigating Parkinsonís and thereby to enable them to gather the pilot data that will later lead to larger and long-term financial support from NIH or an international equivalent. In this context, the program acts as a catalyst, leveraging access to major funding. The task of our scientific research committee is, therefore, to seek out these rare pearls that will contribute significantly to our quest for a cure for Parkinsonís.

Dr. Jakowecís study may move us a step closer to a cure for PD. If surviving dopaminergic neurons can be promoted to restore proper function either through direct intervention or indirectly by influencing other dopaminergic neurons, we will be closer to understanding how the adult brain responds to injury. This knowledge would give insights into the pre-symptomatic phase of PD and potentially result in the development of new therapeutic treatments.

Source Date: Feb 24 2003