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University Professor Caleb Finch

The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded a multi-institutional team of scientists, including researchers at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, a series of grants totaling $4.37 million to investigate the potential role of airborne pollutants as triggers of Parkinson’s disease via the nose.

“It increasingly appears that a complicated mix of biological and environmental factors contribute to Parkinson’s,” said study lead Patrik Brundin, director of the Van Andel Research Institute’s Center for Neurodegenerative Science in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Unraveling this tangled web will go a long way in helping us develop ways to evaluate an individual’s risk for the disease as well as developing therapies to prevent, slow or stop its onset and progress.”

To undertake the four-year study, Brundin has teamed up with collaborators Caleb Finch, the ARCO/F. Kieschnick Professor in the Neurobiology of Aging and University Professor at the USC Leonard Davis School; Honglei Chen, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine; and Todd Morgan, Research Professor of Gerontology also at the USC Leonard Davis School.

The project will be supported by three Department of Defense grants—$1.4 million to Brundin, $1.45 million to Finch and $1.5 million to Chen.

Finch and Morgan have previously shown that airborne particulates cause inflammation that spreads from the nose into the brain in disease models while Chen studies Parkinson’s disease incidence on a population-wide scale.

Research Professor Todd Morgan

Together, they will investigate how long-term exposure to airborne particulates relates to Parkinson’s onset later in life. Increasing evidence suggests that inflammation in the nose, which is directly connected to the brain’s olfactory region, could be among the first triggers of the disease.

An estimated 90 percent of people with Parkinson’s disease have problems with their sense of smell or entirely lose it in the years preceding their diagnosis.

“The nose is a direct gateway into the body and, in fact, it is one of first places we see evidence of Parkinson’s pathology in the form of abnormal alpha-synuclein proteins,” Brundin said. “From there, it appears that these proteins move from the olfactory bulb deeper into the brain, leaving a path of destruction that manifests as symptoms such as loss of sense of smell and, eventually, motor deficits.”

Environmental factors, such as pollution, are likely low-level contributors that are superimposed upon genetic influences and age, the greatest single risk factor for Parkinson’s. The team believes that younger people, particularly those born with low genetic risk, may be able to cope with nasal inflammation and live a long life without developing the disease. Other elements also play a role.

“At the same time, gender differences may also be a factor in the greater vulnerability of men to Parkinson’s,” Finch said.

After their initial studies, the team will explore whether anti-inflammatory medications may be able to slow the progression of Parkinson’s. They include the over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen, and an experimental anti-diabetic drug called MSDC-0160. In 2005, Chen and his associates published evidence that ibuprofen may significantly reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease. MSDC-0160, meanwhile, has shown promise for slowing Parkinson’s progress in lab models of the disease, according to a 2016 study from Brundin’s lab.

Between seven to 10 million people have Parkinson’s disease worldwide. Currently, there is no way to definitively diagnose the disease and no therapies that slow or stop its progression.

The U.S. Army Medical Research Acquisition Activity, 820 Chandler Street, Fort Detrick MD 21702-5014 is the awarding and administering acquisition office. This work was supported by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, through the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs’ Parkinson’s Research Program under Award Nos. W81XWH-17-1-0534, W81XWH-17-1-0535 and W81XWH-17-1-0536. Opinions, interpretations, conclusions and recommendations are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the Department of Defense.

Release courtesy of the Van Andel Research Institute

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