NIH awards $20M grant to develop Parkinson’s imaging tool

The National Institutes of Health has awarded a $20 million grant to several organizations to develop a tool using positron emission tomography to image the brains of patients with Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke awarded the five-year grant to the Center Without Walls for Imaging Proteinopathies with PET (CW2IP2), a collaborative effort between the University of Pennsylvania, Washington University-St. Louis, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of California-San Francisco and Yale University.

PET imaging scans use radioactive tracers that bind to certain proteins—or sugars—to show areas of the body that have higher levels of chemical activity, indicating disease.

Researchers at the Center Without Walls hope to identify a Parkinson’s imaging biomarker to enable early detection of the disease before irreversible damage to the brain occurs.

“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,” says the study’s principal investigator, Robert Mach, the Britton Chance Professor of Radiology at Penn Medicine.

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“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,” adds co-investigator Andrew Siderowf, MD, the Hurtig-Stern Professor of Neurology at Penn Medicine. “Having an imaging biomarker that is sensitive to changes in a Parkinson’s pathology could greatly accelerate drug development.”

The team at the Center Without Walls will develop two separate PET radiotracers. The first radiotracer will bind to a protein in the brain known as alpha-synuclein for the imaging of Parkinson’s and multiple system atrophy, and the second will bind to the protein 4R tau for imaging frontotemporal degeneration and progressive supranuclear palsy.

According to Mach, identifying compounds that are able bind to the proteins alpha-synuclein and 4R tau is like “finding a needle in a haystack.” However, Siderowf contends that “finding a needle in a haystack is much easier when you have a machine made to find needles.”

To achieve this, researchers say they will use a technology that can computationally screen for molecules, synthesize them and interpret binding data based on crosslinking.

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