Peering into the living brain


Christopher Phenix

Christopher Phenix

Diagnosing early Parkinson’s disease is a challenging process that relies largely on the clinical skills of neurologists who are familiar with the symptoms in other patients they have treated.  There is no biological test that can confirm early Parkinson’s – often, it is diagnosed late into its progression.

Researchers now know, however, that early in Parkinson’s onset, levels in the brain of a protein called GBA1 begin to drop significantly. The only way researchers have learned that, however, is by analyzing tissue samples from the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease who have died, or through experiments using human cells.

At the University of Saskatchewan, Christopher Phenix, an assistant professor of chemistry, has invented compounds that could be adapted into radioactive tracers that could attach to GBA1 in people. His goal is to allow researchers and clinicians to use Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to scan images of the brains of living people and study their levels of GBA1, which his tracer and chemical compound will make visible on an imaging scan.

“What we’re trying to do is develop a PET method where we can actually peer into the brain of a living person and study GBA1 activity or levels in real time,” Phenix says. He recently received a one-year, $45,000 pilot project grant from Parkinson Canada’s Research Program to pursue this research.

Not only would PET scans that reveal levels of GBA1 serve as a diagnostic aid for Parkinson’s disease, they could also be invaluable in measuring the effectiveness of drugs designed to increase the activity of the protein. Phenix’s compounds could produce a non-invasive test to see if the drugs are working, and could also help select patients with low GBA1 as good candidates for drug trials.

Being able to understand the underlying structures of Parkinson’s disease and how it progresses before most of the dopamine-producing brain cells have died, will also be critical once other researchers develop a therapy to stop the disease’s advancement.

For Phenix, this research is personal. His grandmother Lucille Sosiak had Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s a pretty devastating disease, so when you have a personal connection to it, it really helps you stay focused on your research and your goal to help people with Parkinson’s disease,” Phenix says.

Read about other researchers recently funded by the Parkinson Canada Research Program by visiting the research section of

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