Michael J. Fox has just announced that his foundation is giving away over $24 million in grants for researching and treating Parkinson’s disease.
The actor, who is best known for his roles in Back to the Future and Spin City, was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease shortly before he retired from his career on the silver screen in 2000.
Later that same year, he launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which has since become the world’s largest and most acclaimed nonprofit for Parkinson’s research and advocacy.
The funding is being distributed in the form of 127 new grant awards for various projects seeking to understand, treat, diagnose, and measure the progression of the disease.
One of the more notable projects to receive a grant from the foundation is a New Zealand research initiative from the University of Auckland which is investigating the genetics of Parkinson’s disease “from an unusual and promising angle.”
Mutations in the gene known as GBA – short for glucocerebrosidase beta acid – are the most common genetic risk factors for Parkinson’s, affecting about 10% of the more than 6 million people estimated to have the disease.
Associate professor of molecular science Justin O’Sullivan and his team at the university’s Liggins Institute will use a powerful 3D genome-mapping tool they devised to reveal the connections of GBA to other genes. They think parts of the gene may be acting as “DNA switches” and disrupting the functioning of other genes that GBA comes into contact with through the way that DNA is coiled inside cells.
DNA, the long molecules containing our entire genetic blueprint, are around two meters long when unwound, but packed into cell nuclei measuring only 100th of a millimeter across. Through this coiling, segments that are far apart when the DNA is stretched out, come into contact with each other.
O’Sullivan and his team are at the forefront of international efforts to show that these spatial connections can change the functioning of genes and potentially play a role in a wide range of diseases.
“Most research into GBA’s role in Parkinson’s focuses on whether GBA mutations hamper the activity of a particular enzyme, a member of the cell’s ‘cleaning crew’ that degrades damaged or surplus cell parts,” Dr O’Sullivan says.
“We’re coming at it from a totally different angle – we’re looking into whether ‘switches’ inside GBA mutations turn up or down the functioning of other genes that they come into contact with. We think some of the more unusual findings about GBA might be able to be explained if it has connections to other genes.
“If we are right, we will identify a network of interrelated Parkinson’s genes. This may help advance research efforts for therapies, and bring together previously confusing or unrecognized connections.”
“For us, this grant is an amazing opportunity to investigate a disorder that has a huge impact on people. We hope to make insights that ultimately make a real difference to patients.”