George S. Robertson, PhD.,
Professor of psychiatry and pharmacology, Dalhousie University
Pilot project grant: $45,000

Mitochondrial mechanisms for flavonoid-mediated neuroprotection

Despite the efforts of leading pharmaceutical companies, there is still no treatment that halts the degenerative process responsible for Parkinson’s disease. At Dalhousie University, Professor George S. Robertson, a pharmacologist, believes part of the problem is that Parkinson’s disease is too complex to be treated with a single compound.

Robertson is investigating the effects of combining multiple compounds found in the skin of fruits and vegetables, called flavonoids. He wants to use a variety of these dietary compounds to target multiple processes to improve the function of mitochondria in cells.

Other researchers have already shown mitochondrial damage in brain cells is central to the development of Parkinson’s. Mitochondria are tiny parts of cells that produce the energy that fuels chemical reactions essential for life. If energy production is impaired because mitochondria do not work properly, the damage can cause brain cells to die prematurely.

“My goal is to use these dietary compounds as drugs that will improve mitochondrial function, and in improving mitochondrial function the degenerative processes responsible for Parkinson’s disease will be stopped,” says Robertson.

Clinical studies have indicated people who consume a diet rich in fruits and vegetables are at lower risk of Parkinson’s disease. Robertson is using apple peel – a waste product from pie manufacturing in Nova Scotia – as well as flavonoids from blueberries and green tea combined in fish oil to aid absorption.
If his approach is successful, it will not require the expensive and extensive, multiple-phase testing required for new drugs because these compounds are safe, Robertson says.

“I don’t recommend that people go to the drugstore and start mixing these things together, because we still don’t know which ones are best and we have to confirm their safety, but it’s something that could happen quickly and could have great benefit” he says.

Robertson chose a career in health research because his father suffered from multiple sclerosis, another neurodegenerative condition. He’s excited about working in the Parkinson’s field because of the opportunities that exist to make a real difference, quickly, he says.

“These compounds are safe and there’s good reason to think they have some benefit,” says Robertson.