Parkinson’s research at UC Berkeley funded by $14 million grant

From left to right: Donald Rio, James Hurley

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Two grants totaling nearly $14 million to be distributed over three years have been awarded to fund research at UC Berkeley on the causes of Parkinson’s disease, for which there is no known cure.

The second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s can cause tremors and problems with cognition, according to Ekemini A. U. Riley, managing director of Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s, or ASAP. This research effort, which is sponsored by ASAP and headed by campus professor of cell and developmental biology Randy Schekman, involves 21 labs worldwide.

“The overarching goal (of ASAP) is to fill key knowledge gaps in the basic mechanisms that contribute to Parkinson’s development and progression,” Riley said.

Of the total grant money, $6.8 million will be allocated to a team headed by campus professor of biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology Donald Rio. The remaining $7 million from the grant will go to a team led by James Hurley, campus professor of biochemistry, biophysics, structural biology and head of the Hurley Lab.

Rio said this project will be collaborative, with different groups able to build on what other researchers are doing by meeting monthly via Zoom. Rio hopes this will speed up research progress.

The main aim of this project for the Rio Lab is to look at Parkinson’s disease mutations that have been inherited in families, focusing on how these genes might be disrupted in their expression of Parkinson’s, Rio said.

Currently there are no known biomarkers for the disease, but the Rio Lab hopes to uncover some through its research, according to Rio. By introducing Parkinson’s mutations into human stem cells using genome-editing CRISPR technology, the lab can look at those cells in isolation to see if they are disrupted in a way that might show how the disease will progress.

The Rio Lab’s focus is on basic understanding of the disease and what the mutations do, but its end goal is to help with Parkinson’s drug development, according to Rio.

Much of the Hurley Lab’s work centers on autophagy, or cellular self-eating, which Hurley said has been linked to many neurodegenerative diseases such Parkinson’s.

According to Hurley, there are 20 genes that can be linked to Parkinson’s disease. Two in particular, PINK1 and Parkin, are linked to mitophagy, the process of recycling damaged mitochondria. The Hurley Lab will investigate damaged mitochondria’s role in causing the death of dopamine neurons in the brain, which are key to coordinating movement.

“We connect what happens at the level of the cell to what happens at the level of the molecule and the atom,” Hurley said. “We can use that information to help design therapies.”

He added that the grant will go toward helping pay those working in the lab, including postdoctorates and graduate students, as well as for supplies and instruments.

According to Hurley, disease research has traditionally sought to find quick fixes, but philanthropic supporters this time around are funding a new approach..

“When you have a problem that’s been around for multiple decades and not been solved by incremental thinking the questions is let’s go deep, let’s look for the real causes and let’s fix them, even if it takes a little more time,” Hurley said.

Contact Lauren Good and Mela Seyoum at [email protected].