Karl Grenier, Doctoral student,
Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University
Porridge for Parkinson’s (Toronto)
Graduate Student Award: $30,000 over two years

The interaction between PINK1 and the Mitochondrial Processing Peptidase: Defining the role of Mitochondrial import defects in Parkinson’s Disease.

Karl Grenier vividly recalls his first encounter with Parkinson’s disease at six years of age, when he was convinced he might be suffering from this illness.

“I was watching a television documentary about it, and afterward I was crying when I went downstairs to see my Mom,” he says. “I had been looking at my hands and they had the slightest of movements, so I told her I had Parkinson’s disease.”

She assured him these movements were perfectly normal. Even more importantly, she told him that if he maintained an interest in the problem, he could eventually find a way to help people who did have Parkinson’s disease. Today, more than 20 years later, he is doing just that.

Grenier is examining two proteins that help our body’s cells deal with damaged components. One of those proteins is responsible for detecting trouble within a cell, when the structure that provides energy to the cell breaks down. If that happens, the second protein takes over and eliminates this structure before it becomes toxic, poisoning the rest of the cell.

When these proteins function properly, this process of detection and disposal takes place all the time. But when they stop doing their job, cells become contaminated by waste products until they can no longer operate. When those cells are in the brain, the effect sets the stage for Parkinson’s disease.

“This is something absolutely awful that happens to people,” says Grenier, who has witnessed the resulting mental and physical breakdown. “You lose everything that you are.”

With a better understanding of how these proteins work, it should be possible to design drugs to restore their function, and stop the disease at the cellular level. In the meantime, Grenier is grateful for the opportunity to acquire such an understanding, which requires the full extent of his doctoral program. The most valuable insights from this program, he explains, usually come near the end, when funding may be most difficult to find.

“In the first few years of my PhD I learned a lot, but things are really coming together now,” he says. “This is where you make most of your discoveries, and it’s key to have someone to support you when things matter most.”