‘Close to a breakthrough’

Researchers at Van Andel Institute have Parkinson’s in their scope.
Illustration by James Heimer

Cutting-edge research is taking place in our very own backyard. New scientific advancements are being made at Van Andel Institute in an effort to detect diseases early and slow or stop progression, with the hope of eventually developing cures for cancer, Parkinson’s and other debilitating diseases.

Dr. Patrik Brundin Courtesy Van Andel Institute

Dr. Patrik Brundin is the deputy chief scientific officer and director of the Van Andel Institute Parkinson’s Disease Center and has dedicated his life to advancing research into the brain disorder that leads to shaking, stiffness and difficulty with walking, balance and coordination.

Brundin indicated that hope is on the horizon for those struggling with Parkinson’s disease, an affliction by which Brundin has been personally impacted.

“My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when I was 12. It was a difficult and scary time for our family and with few answers. From then on, I knew I wanted to understand Parkinson’s and find a way to stop it,” Brundin said.

“Later, when I was in school in the U.K., I was required to develop a formal research question and endeavor to answer it as part of earning my high school diploma. It was known that manganese miners often experience Parkinson’s-like symptoms. I decided to create a model to understand how manganese affects the brain. It was my first foray into Parkinson’s research — and I’ve never stopped. To this day, my father’s memory drives me.”

“My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when I was 12. It was a difficult and scary time for our family and with few answers. From then on, I knew I wanted to understand Parkinson’s and find a way to stop it.”
Dr. Patrik Brundin

Van Andel Institute recently re-upped its longstanding collaboration with Cure Parkinson’s, announcing a $4.5 million co-funding agreement for continued Parkinson’s research early last year. The partnership also welcomed a third funding partner in the fall, The John Black Charitable Foundation, which brings the total funding pledge to $6.75 million. The three-year co-funding agreement will support the International Linked Clinical Trials initiative that will fund further research into Parkinson’s disease.

Grand Rapids Magazine: Where is the science currently on Parkinson’s?

Patrik Brundin: It’s an exciting time in Parkinson’s research.

First, it has become clear that Parkinson’s isn’t a uniform disease; it varies greatly from person to person in terms of symptoms, age of onset and the factors that cause the disease. This means that clinical trials designed to test potential treatments will need to become more “personalized.”

Secondly, we now know that Parkinson’s isn’t just a brain disease. It impacts systems throughout the body and, in turn, is impacted by a host of factors. For most cases of Parkinson’s, there are likely several things that contribute to disease onset, including genetic risk, environmental exposures, history of infections as well as changes in the gut, the immune system and metabolism. While this makes understanding Parkinson’s more complicated, it also provides us with a swath of areas to investigate and target for treatment, in hopes of slowing or stopping disease progression.

Lastly, several potential treatments may impede disease progression currently in clinical trials. Many of these treatments are medications originally designed for other disorders, like diabetes or respiratory problems, but also may work in Parkinson’s.

GRM: How close do you feel you are to a breakthrough?

PB: Right now, we can only treat Parkinson’s symptoms; as such, finding a medication that slows or stops disease progression is the ultimate goal. There are several exciting clinical trials underway to investigate medications with the potential to impact progression, many of which are repurposed medications from other conditions. Many of these trials already have produced promising data — we are hopeful that we are close to a breakthrough.

GRM: Who is your team at VAI collaborating with internationally regarding this research?

PB: We are fortunate to have several strong, collaborative relationships with scientists, clinicians and Parkinson’s advocates from around the world. Our largest such partnership is the International Linked Clinical Trials initiative, which was established in 2012 and is led by the U.K.’s Cure Parkinson’s (formerly The Cure Parkinson’s Trust) and VAI. The program supports clinical trials into medications designed for other disorders that may have applicability in Parkinson’s. We currently support 15 trials and, to date, have investigated medications for diabetes, respiratory issues, depression and inflammation. Seven trials have already been completed and 10 are in the planning pipeline.

GRM: How does Parkinson’s affect families when one member has the disease?

PB: A Parkinson’s diagnosis can be a confusing and frightening time for families. We still don’t have a simple test for the disease. This can draw out the diagnosis process, adding to the stress faced by individuals and their families. There also is concern about the future. How fast will the disease progress? What will life look like in a year? Five years? Ten years?

Thankfully, some medications can mitigate symptoms, and lifestyle changes such as exercise may help as well. There also are several support groups and resources available to help people with Parkinson’s, their families and their care partners. There is help out there. You don’t have to go through it alone.

This story can be found in the May 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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