Research News

Higgins announces $2.2 million grant to UB to support Parkinson’s research


Published July 1, 2020


Rep. Brian Higgins has announced that UB has received a five-year, $2,224,925 grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a method to diagnose Parkinson’s disease (PD) before clinical symptoms are present.

The funding was awarded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the NIH. Principal investigator is Jian Feng, professor of physiology and biophysics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

Parkinson’s is a motor system disorder resulting from the loss of dopamine-producing cells in the brain. It currently is diagnosed by neurologists observing and rating clinical symptoms based on a standard criteria. To even exhibit the onset of clinical symptoms of PD, one must experience many decades of cellular deterioration. 

UB’s research aims to transform Parkinson’s research and therapeutic development with the ability to diagnose PD earlier, allowing for the possibility of proactively preventing or delaying severe neuron decay. The research, titled “Molecular Segregation of Parkinson’s Disease by Patient derived Neurons” will also aim to identify and separate two major subtypes of PD ─ those who experience tremors and those who do not ─ to be able to better treat specific types of PD.

“The National Institutes of Health estimates that up to 1 million people in the United States may have Parkinson’s disease. That’s 1 million Americans with a difficult, progressive condition without a cure who must wait until their clinical symptoms are serious enough to be diagnosed,” Higgins said. “This federal investment to assist our Western New York researchers hopes to provide a path to earlier detection of Parkinson’s to attempt treatment as quick as possible.”

“When we generated induced pluripotent stem cells from a group of Parkinson’s disease patients and a group of normal subjects, we found that there were many significant differences in the expression levels of genes controlling the production, utilization and degradation of dopamine,” Feng said. “Thus, we want to investigate this further with the goal of developing a method for the objective diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. It might also allow us to predict years in advance who may develop Parkinson’s.”

Higgins has been an advocate for measures that advance Parkinson’s research and treatment. Following meetings with the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the Parkinson’s Foundation of WNY and local advocate and former congressman Jack Quinn, Higgins sent a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services last January urging that access to boxing therapy in the treatment of Parkinson’s be expanded, as well as more research be conducted to document the efficacy of the program. In February, he drafted a bipartisan letter supporting funding for a surveillance database at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to collect vital demographic information on people living with neurological diseases, a measure supported by the Michael J. Fox Foundation.