Martin Duennwald, Assistant Professor,
Department of Biology,
University of Western Ontario
Pilot Project Grant: $45,000
Funded by Quebec Research Fund on Parkinson*

Identification of Parkin Substrates in Early-Onset PD

Growing up in Germany, Martin Duennwald became fascinated by genetics when he was introduced to the subject in high school. He also remembers a teacher who had early onset Parkinson’s disease, making him familiar with the rapid progression this disease can display. “That was devastating,” he recalls.

His career today reflects both of these early influences. As a biologist and professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of Western Ontario, Duennwald is probing deeply into the genetic factors responsible for Parkinson’s disease. He focuses on the behaviour of the gene controlling a key protein called parkin, which appears to be instrumental in degrading other proteins. Parkin’s failure results in the cascade of symptoms associated with this disease.

Recent research on parkin has revealed it is normally well regulated to prevent this kind of aberrant degradation. Duennwald and his colleagues are using mutated forms of this protein to try to better understand how these biochemical mechanisms work.

“These mutations informed us to look at what molecule might be important, [but] we still have to figure out what exactly it’s doing and what’s going wrong with parkin in Parkinson’s disease,” he explains.

Duennwald hopes to identify the kinds of changes that are occurring in typical, healthy forms of parkin to cause disease. This insight could eventually point to corrective action to prevent or reverse those changes, but he cautions this therapeutic strategy is not yet in sight.

Meanwhile, he remains grateful for the support of the Parkinson’s Society, which is making it possible to examine this problem from a novel standpoint. The work is at its earliest stages, he adds, which means there is not yet much data to discuss, something that most funding agencies demand. Those will come, insists Duennwald, but they must begin here.

“These things take a lot of time and money,” he concludes, “which is why we’re so thankful for this grant.

* Quebec Research Fund on Parkinson is funded notably, by the Saucier–van Berkom Parkinson Quebec Research Fund and Parkinson Society Saskatchewan.