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Researchers plan to use the money to develop a special type of Positron Emission Tomography scan which will enable them to better study the progression of Parkinson’s disease and other similar neurodegenerative diseases, according to Penn Medicine News.

Credit: Ananya Chandra

Researchers in the Perelman School of Medicine have received a $20 million grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to study the detection of Parkinson’s disease. 

According to Penn Medicine News, researchers plan to use the money to develop a special type of Positron Emission Tomography scan which will enable them to better study the progression of Parkinson’s disease and other similar neurodegenerative diseases. PET scans utilize specific radioactive drugs called tracers that bind to certain proteins in order to reveal areas of chemical activity and indicate disease.

Penn Med News reported that the grant will span five years and be split between the five universities that comprise the Center Without Walls Collaboration: the University of Pennsylvania, University of California-San Francisco, University of Pittsburgh, Washington University-St. Louis, and Yale University.

Co-investigator and Hurtig-Stern Professor of Neurology at Penn Med Andrew Siderowf said that identifying a biomarker specific to Parkinson's could be a "critical step" for early detection of the disease.

“Currently, when testing new drugs for Parkinson’s, assessing the patient’s clinical symptoms is the only way to measure whether or not the treatment is working, but clinical features evolve very gradually,” Siderowf told Penn Med News. “Having an imaging biomarker that is sensitive to changes in a Parkinson’s pathology could greatly accelerate drug development.”

Robert Mach is the principal investigator of the Center Without Walls Collaboration and a Britton Chance Professor of Radiology at Penn Med. Mach told Penn Med News that this information will permit new improvements and advances in the way Parkinson’s disease is treated.

“At the end of five years, we hope to have a radioactive tracer that will be able to detect Parkinson’s early on and provide detailed information about the disease’s progression, which is critical for discovering and testing new treatments,” Mach said. 

According to Penn Med News, the team plans to collaborate with other researchers at Penn Med studying neurodegenerative diseases including Virginia Man-Yee Lee, the John H. Ware 3rd Endowed Professor in Alzheimer’s Research in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. Lee is also the recent recipient of the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

If successful, Mach said the research could not only revolutionize the way in which Parkinson’s disease is treated, but also alter the course of neurodegenerative study. 

“That would be a true paradigm shift in the way we develop molecular imaging probes to study neurological disease,” Mach said. 

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