$3.5M NIH grant funds search for Parkinson's biomarker

By Jeff Carlton

UT Southwestern Medical Center has received a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health aimed at identifying a biomarker that changes in proportion to the severity of Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Richard Dewey (left) and Dr. Dwight German
Dr. Richard Dewey (left) and Dr. Dwight German

Under the five-year grant for nearly $3.5 million, UT Southwestern researchers and physicians will recruit 240 people with Parkinson’s disease and follow them at six-month intervals. UTSW physician-scientists hope to find a biomarker that is useful both for tracking the disease’s progression and measuring its severity.

Discovery of such a biomarker would greatly speed identification and testing of therapies that may slow or halt the progression of Parkinson’s disease. The lead investigators are Dr. Richard Dewey, Professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, and Dr. Dwight German, Professor of Psychiatry.

“This represents a new wave of clinical research in Parkinson’s, a sea change in how we approach the disease,” said Dr. Dewey, Director of the Clinical Center for Movement Disorders at UTSW. “We ultimately want to find a way to slow down, stop, or reverse Parkinson’s. No drug does that right now. All existing drugs work to improve symptoms and have no proven ability to retard disease progression.”

The project consists of two parts. The first is a clinical operation that involves collecting blood, cerebrospinal fluid, and other clinical information at baseline and at periodic intervals for up to five years from trial participants with Parkinson’s. The second is a research group that analyzes serum samples, looking for a biomarker.

Dr. Dewey, along with Dr. Shilpa Chitnis, Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, and Dr. Pravin Khemani, Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, will conduct the clinical portion of the project. 

Dr. German, who leads the project’s basic research component, will compare these blood samples against others taken from age- and gender-matched control subjects at UTSW’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center in efforts to identify a unique Parkinson’s blood biomarker.

When he joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 1994, Dr. Dewey established the Clinical Center for Movement Disorders, which sees nearly 1,000 new patients annually and actively follows more than 2,000 Parkinson’s patients. The trial, which launched in November, will include participants from that patient group, as well as those referred to UT Southwestern from other practices.

About 1 million people in the U.S. have Parkinson’s. That number is expected to rise as the population ages. The disease occurs when brain cells that make dopamine, which helps control muscle movement, slowly die. The disease causes tremors, slowness of movement, cognitive problems, and a host of other symptoms.

“The disease begins at least a decade before the motor symptoms become apparent,” Dr. German said. “We anticipate that a search for blood biomarkers will enable early identification at the beginning of the disease, allowing treatment to stop it from progressing.”

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Dr. Dewey is Director of the Jean Walter Center for Research in Movement Disorders.

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