Michael J. Fox Foundation supports chilean scientists in the fight against Parkinson

Named the best young scientist of the region by the Latin American Academy of Sciences, Claudio Hetz leads the research which may alleviate those affected by this neurodegenerative desease.

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Researchers from the University of Chile investigating therapeutic treatments for Parkinson’s disease have been awarded part of a prestigious US$1.1 million grant from the U.S.-based Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

The one-year grant will support the team, led by Dr. Claudio Hetz, 34, to carry on its research to identify a target for therapies that can protect brain cells from the effects of Parkinson’s.

The project could lay the groundwork for developing new drugs to address the neurodegenerative disorder that affects nearly five million people worldwide, according to the foundation, the largest private funder of Parkinson’s disease research in the world that aims to find a cure for it.

“We are identifying a factor to prevent the disease and the next step would be to design drugs to target this factor,” said Hetz, who was one of the authors of a study done by the University of Chile, Harvard University and Universidad Austral that could increase the lifespan of patients with lateral amyotrophic sclerosis. “We are trying to find something that can modify the progression of the disease.”

Around 18 in every 100 thousand people in Chile are affected by Parkinson’s, according to the Santiago-based Parkinson’s awareness organization (Liga Chilena contra el Mal de Parkinson).

Hetz’s project was among six to recently receive part of US$1.1 million from the foundation last month for research aimed at validating potential therapeutic targets for Parkinson’s disease.

Hetz’s work –  studying whether a pathway that helps to reduce cellular stress, called the Unfolded Protein Response, is a potential target for treatment – is seen by the foundation as an important area of research.

“We are excited by Dr. Hetz’s efforts to determine whether targeting (the protein) XBP-1 and the ‘unfolded protein response’ holds therapeutic value for Parkinson’s disease,” said Dr. Brian Fiske, associate director of research programs at the Foundation. “We have supported Dr. Hetz on this project since 2008 through our Rapid Response Innovation Awards and Target Validation programs and look forward to seeing his results.”

Meanwhile other researchers at the university are developing another therapy that could potentially alleviate the effects of Parkinson’s.
Should the project continue to show promise, Hetz expects the grant would be renewed to continue the research. “They said they want to be partners on this,” he said.

Hetz, who in 2008 was awarded the best young scientist prize in Latin America and the Caribbean by the Latin American Academy of Sciences, received funding from the Michael J. Fox Foundation in 2008 to continue his research. Using mice, his lab is testing whether therapeutic genes will slow the progression of Parkinson’s.

The young scientist, who is a principal investigator from the Laboratory of Cellular Stress and Biomedicine at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Chile, says being awarded a grant by the foundation shows that Chilean scientists are being recognized for having novel ideas.
“It was a really competitive grant so for us it means they trust us to do the job right,” Hetz said.

This post is also available in Spanish