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“I hope that this might lead to the development of targeted genetic therapies for PD.”
James Dahlman, Ph.D.

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Too Small to See: Are Nanoparticles the Future of PD Drug Delivery?

How can chemical engineering help to advance treatments for Parkinson’s disease (PD)? In the interview that follows, we asked that question of James Dahlman, Ph.D., of the Georgia Institute of Technology, one of the first recipients of the Stanley Fahn Junior Faculty Award, a new grants program of the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF). The award provides $900,000 over three years for junior faculty to conduct Parkinson’s research. Dr. Dahlman completed a doctoral degree in medical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard Medical School, and has spent several years studying drug delivery systems for cancer and other diseases. Now, with funding from PDF, he has turned his attention to Parkinson’s disease.

Q. What led you to focus on Parkinson’s research?

I believe that the brain is an incredible organ. I am fascinated by its ability to help us think, learn and adapt. But I have also seen the effects of neurological disease, and I know how difficult it can be when the brain stops working the way we want it to. Parkinson’s disease is particularly interest- ing to me because the therapies available are good, but they don’t treat the underlying causes of PD. This is where medical engineering comes in: I hope it can help me and my colleagues to identify and perhaps treat some of those causes.

Q. Can you summarize your PDF-supported research?

My lab studies how drugs are delivered to the body. For example, in Parkinson’s, it is a challenge to deliver drugs to the brain. I want to design a technology that gets more of the drug into the brain and shields the rest of the body from its effects. Using the award from PDF, I will combine my expertise in drug delivery, biology and genomics, to look for ways of delivering genetic drugs, those made from DNA and RNA, to the brain using tiny chemical structures called nanoparticles. Genetic drugs are exciting because they can address the root causes of Parkinson’s. Nanoparticles might be one way to deliver them.

Q. What are nanoparticles and how might they help in PD drug delivery?

Nanoparticles are incredibly small chemical structures. To give a sense of their size, nanoparticles are just 50 nanometers wide; I, as a person of 6’2”, am 1,876,000,000 nanometers tall! Nanoparticles are unique because they exist smack dab at the intersection of biology, physics and chemistry. As a chemical engineer, I can design nanoparticles to address medical problems. In my lab, we want to use nanoparticles to encase and protect drugs on their journey to the brain. To begin, we are using new technology in order to rapidly test thousands of nanoparticles for their potential. We have already identified a few promising candidates and will later be testing for which of these work best in Parkinson’s disease.

Q. How could this work one day help people with PD?

Being cautiously optimistic, I envision that one day, we may be able to identify nanoparticles that target the brain in PD. Down the road, I hope that this might lead to the development of targeted genetic therapies for PD, but it takes a lot of sustained work and time to create a safe and effective drug. I am hopeful that one day we can be part of that success.

Q. Is there anything that you would like to share with our readers?

I want readers to understand the critical role that awards to young investigators (like this one from PDF) play in scientific progress. As a young professor, I was interested in Parkinson’s, but didn’t have access to funds to perform my experiments. Because of this grant, I am now in the Parkinson’s field and hoping to make a sustained contribution over my career. I will try my hardest each day to make a difference.