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Advancing the Science of Parkinson's

The university’s basic scientists, many who will move their labs by summer 2019 to RFU’s new Innovation and Research Park, are driven by questions about the biological and chemical processes of life, the opportunity to test their ideas, broaden their perspective and hone their experiments with cutting edge tools, all with the goal of discovering knowledge that will improve health and well-being.

Molecular biologist Judith Potashkin, PhD, one of a team of five primary investigators in the Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases and Therapeutics, has spent the last 12 years of her 28-year career at RFU looking for biomarkers of Parkinson’s disease (PD), a chronic, debilitating, often misdiagnosed illness that affects 1 to 5 percent of the population over the age of 60.

“There’s no cure,” Dr. Potashkin said. “By the time it’s diagnosed the neurons in the brain are already dead, so it’s irreversible. When I first learned about it I was horrified. I began to obsess over the problem and wondered if someone trained as a molecular biologist studying gene expression could make a contribution.”

She mulled the way PD is typically diagnosed, by looking for motor symptoms — tremors, rigidity, postural instability — that manifest later in the disease. “A tremor in the hand? It’s too late,” she said.

Long before motor problems, PD patients may lose their sense of smell, experience sleep problems and constipation, all symptoms that aren’t specific to PD. Dr. Potashkin reasoned that what was really needed was a way to detect the disease before the onset of motor symptoms. When she proposed studying human blood samples to identify pre-motor system and progression RNA markers for PD, doubters wondered why something occurring in the blood would reflect what’s going on in the brain.

“I maintained that it didn’t matter to me whether it was the same thing going on, as long as it was reproducible and could be identified as PD with a high amount of accuracy,” said Dr. Potashkin, whose project, funded by the Department of Defense, helped reveal a crucial insight: Inflammation is a risk factor for PD.

Her search for biomarkers of PD has been useful in distinguishing atypical Parkinsonian disorders and subcategories of PD patients, which could make the disease easier to diagnose. It also helped reveal a molecular mechanism by which PD and diabetes might be related. Clinical trials using diabetes medication to slow the progress of PD have shown some promise.

Dr. Potashkin foresees a potential collaboration with fellow center researchers who study neurodegenerative diseases often associated with some form of dementia. Her search for a biomarker to distinguish different dementias associated with diseases including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment recently earned a two-year, $624,000 grant from the National Institute on Aging at NIH.

In addition to the NIH, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, CurePSP and The Cure Parkinson’s Trust, all which have either funded or approved funding for Dr. Potashkin’s research, have climbed aboard the discovery train for markers of PD.

“The interest in our work just keeps increasing,” said Dr. Potashkin, who is a member of the NIH advisory committee that is seeking feedback from scientists and taking action on that feedback. “We’re moving the science forward, faster.”

Posted January 7, 2019
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