Public Release: 

Emory to receive more than $6.5 million to study environmental risk factors for Parkinson's disease

Emory University Health Sciences Center

Emory University will receive one of three 5-year grants totaling $20 million from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a division of the National Institutes of Health, to study the relationship between exposures to environmental agents and Parkinson's disease (PD). Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder of the central nervous system affecting over one million people in the United States.

Emory University, the University of California at Los Angeles and The Parkinson's Institute, Sunnyvale, CA, will each receive more than $6.5 million to create new centers and fund research relating to environmental agents that may trigger the onset of PD. The NIEHS will make the grant announcement on Monday, August 26, in Sunnyvale.

"It's been thought for a long time that environmental factors, including pesticides, may be important in causing Parkinson's disease. We are very excited about this new opportunity to broaden our research efforts in Parkinson's disease and its environmental causes," says J. Timothy Greenamyre, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neurology and pharmacology, Emory University School of Medicine, and co-director of the Emory Neurodegenerative Disease Center. "We already have a strong program in neurodegenerative diseases, particularly in Parkinson's disease, and we have a longstanding interest in the links between a person's genetic make-up, their exposures to environmental toxins, such as pesticides, and their likelihood of developing PD. I think these new NIEHS Collaborative Centers will really accelerate the pace of this research."

Dr. Greenamyre will direct the new center at Emory, which will be called "The Emory Collaborative Center for Parkinson's Disease Environmental Research." The center will combine resources from different departments and schools, including the Emory Neurodegenerative Disease Center, Emory's Department of Neurology and the Rollins School of Public Health. Clinical and basic research projects, all targeting gene-environment interactions in Parkinson's disease, will be led by Dr. Greenamyre, Allan Levey, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neurology, Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Emory Neurodegenerative Disease and Gary Miller, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, Rollins School of Public Health at Emory.

  • Dr. Greenamyre's research will focus on pesticides and their role in causing Parkinson's disease. Rotenone, a commonly used organic pesticide, has attracted a lot of attention in Dr. Greenamyre's lab. In past studies, Dr. Greenamyre and colleagues found that rotenone can induce major features of PD in rats, including slowness, stiffness and tremor. Published in Nature Neuroscience in November 2000, these results support the idea that chronic exposure to environmental pesticides may contribute to the incidence of Parkinson's disease in humans. With the new funding, Dr. Greenamyre will continue to research rodent and cell models of PD to determine which genes cause susceptibility or resistance to the PD-inducing effects of pesticides.

  • Dr. Miller, a neurotoxicologist, will study the brain's reaction to organochlorine insecticides in rodents and how these insecticides alter the function of cells that die in Parkinson's disease. Specifically, he will research how these chemicals affect storage and release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter produced by neurons in the brain that is found in steadily decreasing amounts as the disease progresses. Most organochlorine insecticides were banned in the 1970's, but because the compounds are very environmentally persistent, residue can still be found in the soil, the food chain and in humans. Using genetically altered mice models, Dr. Miller will investigate the mechanisms of cell death following exposure to insecticides.

  • Dr. Levey will research the genetic causes of PD by collecting DNA samples from Emory Parkinson's patients and performing genetic analyses of those samples. Through this analysis and a detailed, clinical registry of PD patients, environmental factors and genetic susceptibility will be examined closely. Dr. Levey will use brain samples from post-mortem Parkinson's patients and pesticide-induced rodent models, which Drs. Greenamyre and Miller will generate, to study candidate genes, or genes of interest, in connection to environmental exposure and PD.

Because the new Emory Collaborative Center for Parkinson's Disease Environmental Research is a joint endeavor, adding Dr. Miller's expertise in the fields of toxicology and public health will expand research to include new approaches to PD prevention. "If we can figure out how insecticides contribute to PD, it will help us develop strategies to prevent or treat the disease in the future," Dr. Miller explains. "The solution is not to ban pesticides and insecticides, because these products are very important in crop production and insect control. However, it may be necessary to reevaluate the regulatory guidelines for pesticides, taking into consideration the risks for Parkinson's disease while not dismissing the positive impact these chemicals have on public health."

Dr. Miller is a new recruit in the Emory Neurodegenerative Disease Center, a center established just four months ago through a $3 million gift. The center brings together scientists from different disciplines to enhance research opportunities and strengthen clinical services for patients with neurodegenerative diseases. "This NIEHS grant is made possible through the collaborative efforts of the Emory Neurodegenerative Disease Center and through new faculty members like Dr. Miller," Dr. Levey points out. "It exemplifies the power of people working together from different aspects and approaches."

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The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center
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