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PDF's Pilot Research Grants Lead to $20 million in Federal and Other Aid.
Most of the scientists whose research has been supported by private individual grants from the Parkinson's Disease Foundation (PDF), the record suggests, will go on to win larger and longer-term awards from government agencies and other sources.
And for those who do win these awards, according to the results of a new survey, the work builds directly on the PDF-funded research.
Specifically, of 49 scientists who received awards from PDF between 1999 and 2002, 18 have since received multi-year awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a foreign-country equivalent, or another private foundation. A further 16 either have already submitted proposals to NIH and are waiting to hear if they have been successful, or are currently preparing proposals for submission.
For the 18 who have received multi-year grants, the total awarded is almost $20 million – ten times the total amount that was provided earlier by PDF to the International Research Grants Program over the three years in which they participated.
Dr. Stanley Fahn, H. Houston Merritt professor of neurology at Columbia University, who serves also as PDF's scientific director, said that the results of the survey provide "a remarkable success story, confirming the potential of well-targeted, competitively- selected seed grants to provide the basis for follow-up grants from government, such as the RO1.”
The average PDF grant within this period was $34,484 and this amount leveraged an average grant value of a staggering $849,244 – about 25 times the value of the 18 initial grants.
The RO1 is the most common type of research grant awarded by the NIH. Typically, such grants are made only to researchers who can show data to support their hypotheses, and pilot grants such as those through PDF provide an important opportunity to accumulate such data.
In his role as PDF's scientific director, Dr. Fahn heads up the committee that selects the candidates to receive such awards – usually, from a number of proposals that is three to four times the number of grants available. Other members include scientists from the three medical centers that receive "center grants” from PDF: Columbia University and Cornell University in New York City and Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago. To avoid any appearance of conflict of interest, members of the selection committee are barred from submitting proposals of their own.
Dr. Fahn pointed out that most of the PDF grants included in the survey had been concluded less than two years ago, suggesting that the actual number of PDF-to-government "conversions” could end up being considerably higher than the 18 identified in the survey. He said that the Foundation would continue to track the progress of the scientists involved and would issue a new and complete report on their accomplishments a year from now.
PDF was informed about one such success story earlier this year. Dr. Un Jung Kang, Associate Professor at the Departments of Neurology and Neurobiology, Pharmacology & Physiology at the University of Chicago wrote to us with this report:
"On-going research suggested that an endogenous antioxidant known as glutathione is important in the survival of dopamine neurons. We needed new funds to follow up on the hunch. We proposed the experiments to the PDF grants program and received funding to carry out the work. Our first hunch turned out to be wrong, as is often the case in new research. Nonetheless, this work led to a new unexpected discovery: That dopaminergic neurons are more resistant to oxidative stress than other neurons, contrary to conventional wisdom. We wrote a second proposal to PDF and secured funding to follow up this interesting and unexpected finding. This led to the discovery that tetrahydrobiopterin, (a chemical in the brain that was first noted for its effect to make dopamine in the brain) which is present specifically in dopaminergic neurons, functions as an antioxidant that protects these neurons from oxidative stress they face day to day. We were fortunate to win a third grant from PDF to extend these findings and to study: "The effects of tetrahydrobiopterin on oxidative stress and mitochondrial function.” (Mitochondria are small bodies within cells that produce energy.) During this study, we were able to accumulate sufficient preliminary data to submit a proposal to NIH to examine the mechanism of how the protective effects of tetrahydrobiopterin occur. This NIH funding was approved and started in the spring of 2003. PDF funding of $105,000 over three years became the seed to expand the research into a $1.2 million research project for the next five years. This would not have been possible without PDF funding.”
The survey was conducted by Renay Crooms, who recently left the Foundation after serving for five years as its assistant director. She was assisted by Lorraine Clark, Ph.D., a geneticist at the Sergievsky Institute at Columbia.
"Our grantees are compiling an outstanding record in convincing NIH that the results of their PDF-financed work justifies a grant for more intensive research. Their results constitute the best index we have available of the success of our grants program,” Robin Elliott, PDF Executive Director commented on the survey.
According to Mr. Elliott, the PDF grants program provides appealing "naming opportunities” for private donors who contribute at the level of $40,000 (the average size of a PDF grant) or higher. For a donor who wishes it, PDF attaches his or her name to the grant and then informs the scientist of the identity of the donor who made the grant possible.