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Parkinson’s Disease Research Centre

Collaborating to develop early diagnostics and new drugs to stop or slow Parkinson’s disease.

The Parkinson’s Disease Research Centre is a collaborative, multidisciplinary initiative to develop early diagnostic markers and precision medicines as new drugs to improve health outcomes for people with Parkinson’s disease.

There are major unanswered questions as to how Parkinson’s disease develops and progresses that have hampered the development of new targeted therapies. We aim to:

  • Understand the mechanisms of neurodegeneration (cell death, ubiquitin signalling inflammation)
  • Identify better biomarkers of Parkinson’s disease
  • Develop new drugs that slow or stop disease progression.

Find out more about Parkinson’s disease and our research

The problem

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common degenerative brain disease, after Alzheimer’s, but its incidence is increasing. It is a progressive, degenerative disease caused by damage to nerve cells in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra.

Around 220,000 Australians currently suffer from Parkinson’s disease, with around 5 per cent diagnosed under the age of 50. Although approximately 10 per cent of cases have a clear genetic basis, the cause of the majority of cases of Parkinson’s disease remains unknown.

Unfortunately, by the time of diagnosis a significant amount of irreparable damage has already been caused to the brain resulting in the tell-tale movement symptoms of the disease including tremors, stiff muscles and problems balancing.

Currently there are no tests that allow the early diagnosis of the disease and no drugs that either slow or stop disease progression. Treatments are restricted to relieving symptoms, and whilst often effective, these treatments do not work for all and can have side-effects.

The solution

We have established a multidisciplinary team of researchers and clinicians to identify new treatment options and also to create simple tests that can be carried out to detect the disease early before significant loss of nerve cells has occurred.

We aim to:

  • Understand the mechanism of neurodegeneration in individuals with Parkinson’s disease
  • Identify biomarkers for Parkinson’s disease
  • Develop new drugs that slow or stop disease progression

We envisage that this combined approach of early diagnosis and targeted drug treatments will lead to significantly improved health outcomes for people living with this devastating disease.

Our multi-disciplinary approach

Capitalising on WEHI’s position as a global leader in medical research we have put together some of the brightest minds to make the centre multi-disciplined and highly collaborative.

Our research teams are working together spanning areas from fundamental research on target proteins and biological mechanisms through to genetic marker identification, improved diagnostics to drug development via the National Drug Discovery Centre, and clinical research in partnership with The Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Since the Centre’s inception we have had consumers embedded in research teams working collaboratively with researchers, with representatives sitting on our committee in an advisory capacity.

Centre research projects

WEHI researchers established the Parkinson’s Disease Research Centre to take a collaborative and patient-focused approach to tackling this significant health challenge.

The multidisciplinary research team – including world-leading biologists, clinicians, chemists and statisticians – covers a wide spectrum of medical research, from fundamental discovery right through to the development and testing of treatments and diagnostic approaches.

Our research projects include:

  • investigating how to stop or delay nerve cell death in Parkinson’s disease
  • investigating how errors in the control of certain proteins contribute to the onset and progression of Parkinson’s disease. Applying innovative approaches to better understand how powerhouses of cells (mitochondria) keep nerve cells alive and healthy
  • exploring the role that inflammation plays in the degeneration of nerve cells
  • identifying diagnostic markers that can be used to detect Parkinson’s disease early, when treatments are more likely to be successful
  • working with medicinal chemists on drug discovery programs to translate research into new treatments.

Our discoveries are also relevant to other neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, motor neurone disease and Huntington’s disease.

Supporters

The Parkinson’s Disease Research Centre acknowledges the support of:

What help is available?

For more information about specific neurodegenerative disorders, or to access support, please visit the following websites: 

We are not currently recruiting people to participate in the research. However if you are interested in keeping in touch, please email PDRC@wehi.edu.au. 

Consumer involvement

Parkinson’s disease consumers, people with a lived experience of the disease, are an integral part of the Parkinson’s Disease Research Centre and are involved throughout our research. 

Embedded in labs, consumers assist researchers in various aspects of our work on a volunteer basis. We also have a Consumer Reference Group for special projects and consumer-led research, with a consumer representative on the Parkinson’s Disease Research Centre committee. 

Find out more about consumers at WEHI.

Research leads

The Centre brings together an interdisciplinary team of researchers and clinicians with the necessary skills to develop diagnostic tests and treatment options for people with Parkinson’s disease.

 

Associate Professor Grant Dewson

Grant is a lab head within the Ubiquitin Signalling division at WEHI and is Head of the Parkinson’s Disease Research Centre. His lab’s research is focused around understanding how cells die including the neurons that die to cause the movement symptoms of Parkinson’s. A major focus is cellular structures called mitochondria which provide essential energy to many cells including neurons. Defective mitochondria can lead to diseases including neurodegenerative disorders. His research uses innovative approaches to better understand how mitochondria ensure cell survival and identifying ways to prevent neurons from dying in Parkinson’s disease.

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Professor Melanie Bahlo

Melanie is the Healthy Development and Ageing Theme Leader at WEHI. Her lab uses computational methods to identify genetic risk factors in neurological and retinal disorders. As well as conducting studies, her lab also develops new software to help identify genetic risk factors. The lab has expertise in the analysis of long and short read sequencing and GWAS data. These skills and novel methods are applied to large data bases such as the Parkinson’s Progressive Markers Initiative and the UK Biobank, as well as locally recruited cohorts. Her lab is especially interested in repeat expansion disorders, mitochondrial copy number estimation and RNA editing.

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Professor David Komander

David is the Head of the Ubiquitin Signalling division and a world-leading ubiquitin biochemist and structural biologist.

The Komander lab has been at the forefront of research into inherited Parkinson’s disease with a hope to uncover new diagnostics and treatments to stop or delay this incurable condition. His lab has visualised the activation process of the ubiquitin kinase PINK1, and of the ubiquitin E3 ligase Parkin, which when mutated lead to defects in mitochondrial turnover, causing early-onset Parkinson’s disease. Their research explained how certain genetic mutations make the proteins dysfunctional, and identify how defects can potentially be corrected. The Komander lab aims to identify drug targets to boost mitochondrial health.

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Professor Guillaume Lessene

Guillaume is the leader of the New Medicines and Advanced Technologies Theme at WEHI. Trained as an organic chemist his group is focused on medicinal chemistry and chemical biology approaches to translational research. His group are developing new agents to understand biological processes and new drugs to treat diseases including Parkinson’s disease, cancer and inflammatory disorders.

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Associate Professor Michael Lazarou

Michael is a lab head within the Ubiquitin Signalling division at WEHI and the Deputy Head: Research for the centre. The main research focus of his lab is understanding how the cell’s quality control pathways maintain healthy mitochondria. Using cell biology and imaging techniques they study proteins fundamental to mitochondrial health. Poor mitochondrial quality control is linked with Parkinson’s disease and represents a therapeutic target to boost its activity.

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Associate Professor Rosie Watson

Rosie is a lab head within the Population Health and Immunity division at WEHI. A clinician researcher with a background in geriatric medicine, she established a lab focusing on dementia with her colleague Associate Professor Nawaf Yassi in 2019.

The aim of the lab is focused on improving the accuracy of diagnosis of patients with dementia through novel biomarkers, understanding the overlap of different causes of dementia, and investigating new ways to treat dementia.

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Dr Rebecca Feltham

Rebecca is a laboratory head within the Ubiquitin Signalling division at WEHI. Rebecca is a molecular biologist who is interested in developing therapies against ‘undruggable’ disease proteins. The main research focus of her lab is to identify, validate and target disease-associated inflammatory proteins using PROTAC-based target validation approaches.

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Dr Rory Bowden

Rory is the Head of the Genomics Lab and Advanced Genomics Facility at WEHI. He is interested in many applications of genomics technologies in clinical and scientific contexts. His lab helps the Institute to implement new methods to measure DNA variation and gene expression profiles in samples from single cells to whole organs. The facility is particularly involved in WEHI’s spatial omics initiative, finding ways to detect simultaneously hundreds of RNAs or proteins on tissue sections in health and disease.

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Associate Professor Andrew Webb

Andrew is Head of the Proteomics Laboratory at WEHI and Head of the Colonial Foundation Healthy Ageing Centre. His work includes applying the latest proteomics methods to understand how changes in proteins in our body influence health and disease, including cancers, infectious diseases and neurodegenerative conditions including dementia.

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Andrew Evans

Dr Andrew Evans

Andrew is the Director of the Movement Disorder Service at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Deputy Head: Clinical for the centre He has more than 15 years of experience and has developed a comprehensive team dedicated to providing quality care to those living with movement disorders, specialising in the management and treatment of Parkinson’s disease patients.