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During its 18-year history, the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) has funded some 130 research projects at Canadian institutions focused on Parkinson’s research – totalling more than $30 million.

Among the current projects being supported by the MJFF, is one led by Dr. Neil Vasdev, director, Azrieli Centre for Neuro-Radiochemistry and associate director and chief radiochemist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Research Imaging Centre in Toronto.

The thrust of Dr. Vasdev’s work focuses on using a type of imaging scan called Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to better understand how brain cells function to ultimately develop new imaging agents that can be used in treating illnesses centred on the brain, like Parkinson’s.

Leading Parkinson’s disease researcher, Dr. Neil Vasdev

YouAreUNLTD caught up with Dr. Vasdev to discuss his research.

Describe your reaction to learning your research was to be funded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

I am both honoured and delighted to be funded by the MJFF for this new research program. I have been fortunate to have been funded by this foundation in my past roles in Boston for the development of new medical imaging agents for detection and diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease (PD).  I am excited to start this new line of research in Toronto and to work with my long-term collaborators at the Yale PET Center.

What is the total amount being funded and over how long?

The combined project total is US$546,000 (CDN$706,953) for the first-year milestones.

What does this funding mean for your research?

This funding will create a formal collaboration between our Azrieli Centre for Neuro-Radiochemistry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto and the Yale PET Centre in the US.  We will collaborate to apply cutting-edge radiochemistry methods to prepare a new diagnostic tool for first in human positron emission tomography (PET) imaging studies in patients suffering from PD.

What is the vision for this research?

A synapse is a structure that allows nerve cells (neurons) to communicate with one-another or with target cells.  In the brain, changes in synaptic density are associated with a variety of brain disorders, psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases including PD.  The development of optimal brain tracers for medical imaging by PET can enable the diagnosis of degenerative disorders and lead to testing of patient response to new drugs that target synaptic repair and recovery in the living human body. With a PET imaging agent to accurately measure synaptic density, researchers will better be able to select which patients would be likely to respond to novel therapies and what classes of drugs should be tested in PD, as well as the optimal dosing regimen.

What impact do you foresee your research could potentially have on Parkinson’s in Canada and beyond?

PD is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s disease.  PD has a high socioeconomic burden, and puts a massive burden on both the patients and their families. More than 100,000 Canadians are living with Parkinson’s today and over 6,000 new cases of PD are diagnosed each year in Canada. Approximately four million people worldwide are living with the condition. We hypothesize that the new brain tracers developed in this project will be widely used for PET imaging worldwide and will be beneficial in early clinical development of new therapeutic strategies for PD.

What is novel about this approach?

This unprecedented and jointly-funded collaboration between CAMH and Yale is unique and leverages the strengths of both institutions. Our PET centres are among the top in the world for brain imaging studies and we have overlapping research interests and infrastructure. If successful we will be translating new PET imaging agents at both sites concurrently by completion of the project. We would be generating a first-in-class radiopharmaceutical for measuring synaptic density in the living human brain that is labeled with the radionuclide fluorine-18, and is optimal for PET imaging in multi-centre clinical trials for PD.

What led you to looking at this specific area within the sphere of Parkinson’s research?

Changes in synaptic density are associated with a variety of brain disorders and psychiatric diseases including PD. Overlapping research interests in both of these areas between CAMH and Yale made for a good fit. The first PET tracer for imaging synaptic density was translated for human studies at Yale but has major limitations that preclude its widespread use. We were attracted to this line of work for two major reasons: firstly, clinical importance of imaging synaptic loss in PD patients; secondly, our laboratory has developed new radiochemical methods for developing fluorine-18 labeled radiopharmaceuticals.  We are the ideal team to overcome the remaining challenges and develop such a tool for widespread clinical research.

What is involved in conducting this research? 

The proposed research will involve sequential steps that will facilitate smooth “bench to bedside” translation of our novel PET radiotracers for imaging synaptic density in patients with PD or other neurological diseases in which synaptic density loss is implicated. The first steps will involve chemistry and radiochemistry development, and will be carried through validation for first in human use. We will concurrently submit applications to Health Canada (CAMH) and the US FDA (Yale) to seek regulatory approval prior to first-in-human PET imaging studies.

Where could the outcomes of this research lead in the future?

Our research will yield a novel and biologically validated PET radiotracer to directly measure synaptic density in the living human brain. These radiopharmaceuticals could be used in multi-centre clinical trials with novel therapeutics and also to identify a dose for drugs targeting synaptic density in PD. From a practical point of view, outcomes from our research will allow commercial distribution of the newly developed radiotracer to satellite clinical PET centers that lack their own production facilities, thereby ensuring widespread dissemination.