Omid Tavassoly, Post-Doctoral Fellow,
Montreal Neurological Institute
Basic Research Fellowship: $80,000 over two years

Molecular Mechanism of Alpha-Synuclein Propagation in Parkinson’s disease

Increasingly, researchers interested in the causes of Parkinson’s disease are focusing their investigations around proteins. One critical protein is alpha-synuclein, which is essential to keeping brain cells healthy.

When alpha-synuclein is mutated, or when metals and chemicals bind to it and change its shape, the protein clumps together and kills brain cells that produce dopamine, the chemical transmitter that controls movement. Loss of dopamine-producing cells causes Parkinson’s.

Recently, investigators discovered these clumps of misshapen or misfolded proteins can move from one cell to another, spreading Parkinson’s disease. At the Montreal Neurological Institute, biochemist Omid Tavassoly will study this cell-to-cell transmission of misshapen alpha-synuclein. He hopes to discover the way the process works.

“The results eventually could lead to discovering chemicals and genes to stop alpha-synuclein transmission between cells as new therapies to delay the onset of Parkinson’s disease or slow its progression,” says Tavassoly.

Tavassoly will work in the lab of Dr. Edward Fon, a prominent Parkinson’s disease researcher whose team has already turned up some promising compounds, one of which might prevent cell-to-cell transmission of damaged alpha-synuclein. Tavassoly will use these findings to explain the molecular mechanism behind the spread of the misshapen protein.

The grant Tavassoly has received will allow him to carry out this vital research – something he could not have done in his native Iran, he says, where many researchers lack the equipment and support to do cutting-edge research in the Parkinson’s field.

“Even if somebody has a good idea, without support, without equipment, it would in some cases be impossible to complete that research,” he says.

Even in Canada, many labs would like to recruit post-doctoral fellows but are limited by the lack of fellowship funds – which Tavassoly is grateful he received. Thanks to the Parkinson Society grant, he hopes to one day contribute to a breakthrough.

The results of his work “could have a major therapeutic impact for people with Parkinson’s disease, because it has the potential to slow or stop the disease’s progress,” Tavassoly says.