A St. John’s University professor has been awarded a $900,000 research grant to study plants and fish to better treat Parkinson’s disease in its early stages.
Simon Moller, professor of biological sciences on the Jamaica campus, said the grant from the Research Council of Norway will allow him to study the mechanisms involved in the onset of Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder affecting neurons that enable the brain to generate body movements.
Through his research, Moller hopes to discover more effective ways of diagnosing and treating the condition. The native of Norway came to the United States nine months ago to work at the college.
Most of the work will be done on plants, which have all but one of the genes that cause Parkinson’s in humans. Moller said that zebra fish are biologically even closer to humans and show similar effects from Parkinson’s in their locomotion and on the brain. “They are small and breed easily, that’s also why we use the fish,” he said.
In addition, the research will use cell cultures of mammalian neurons. “We’ve merged these three models, which I think makes for a more powerful approach to reaching some answers,” he said.
He will use four postdoctoral researchers and purchase state-of-the-art equipment to use in the three-year grant program.
“One of the problems with Parkinson’s is that the methods for diagnosing and treating it have progressed very little since the 1970s,” Moller said. “By the time a case is diagnosed, much of the damage is done.”
He explained that it is a disorder, not a disease, and its progression in patients is impossible to predict. “You can’t diagnose reliably before the person has symptoms,” Moller added.
He is hoping that a saliva or blood test in the future will give a risk analysis for the disorder and that drugs will be developed to inhibit the clumping of protein in neurons, which kills them. “We want to stop the clumping,” he said, “because you can’t reverse the damage once it’s done.”
Although some people are genetically predisposed to get Parkinson’s, the causes are not entirely known. The researcher said exposure to metals such as manganese and pesticides can be major factors, as is stress. Oddly, he added, drinking coffee and smoking do not seem to be factors and may actually help prevent the condition.
Moller is hoping to apply for further grants to research plants, noting that “plants are cheap.”
He and his wife and two sons are living in Kew Gardens.