Finding the missing genetic links in Parkinson’s

Addressing Missing Heritability in Synucleinopathies using Bioinformatic Approaches

Eric Yu
PhD Candidate
McGill University
Graduate Student Award
Funded in Partnership with Québec Parkinson Network
$20,000 over 2 years

Eric Yu’s first experience with Parkinson’s occurred as a high school student, when he watched a favourite history teacher struggle with symptoms of the illness.

“At the time, I didn’t know Parkinson’s had no cure or that we only had medicine to alleviate the symptoms,” says Yu, a PhD candidate in genetics at McGill University.

“It made me want to understand more about biology and degenerative neurological disorders.”

That desire to understand more about Parkinson’s – coupled with his interest in computer science – led directly to Yu’s research career. He’s now using his curiosity and his computation skills to analyze tens of thousands of DNA samples of people with Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Multiple System Atrophy and dementia with Lewy bodies.

Yu is searching for additional genetic risk factors that might predispose people to developing these disorders. He’s focusing on samples from people with Parkinson’s who have either extra copies of genes or are missing some genes.

“Having extra copies of genes, or an insufficient number of genes – either one is a risk factor,” Yu says.

Finding an association between these genes and people who have already developed Parkinson’s will give researchers a better understanding of how the illness develops, and could open a new avenue for drug development, he says.

“These new genes could be potential therapeutic targets,” Yu adds.

Every gene contains portions of DNA that “code” for proteins: provide the instructions to make proteins and molecules that play specific roles in the body’s growth, development and function.

Cells also contain genetic material that does not code for the building of proteins, called non-coding DNA. The role of these non-coding variants is still not well-understood, but they could affect the way genes are expressed – providing clues to defective proteins that play a role in Parkinson’s.

In addition to screening for extra or deleted copies of genes themselves, Yu is also going to analyze the role of variants, or mutations, in the non-coding DNA.

The more Yu’s basic research can add to our understanding of what causes Parkinson’s, the greater the possibility of new treatments, he says.

“There’s still a long way to go before we can confidently say we have found a cure or a treatment, so I want to just move the field a step forward to have a better understanding of what we are facing and more potential treatment for people,” he says.

How your support made this research project possible

This award is Yu's first grant, he says, and makes it possible for him to work on this project.

"It means a lot to me that Parkinson Canada values my contribution to research and to academics, and to Parkinson's."

It is critical for donors to support Parkinson Canada because of the prevalence of people with Parkinson's and the effect the illness has on individuals and our society.

"Having more people aware of the issues and contributing to research will mean a lot to people with Parkinson's," he says.

Donate to fund more research projects