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Canadian family donates brains to fight against Parkinson’s

Image: Emmanuel Dunand, AFP/Getty Images

A Saskatchewan family donated vital clinical information to an international research team which recently made a breakthrough in tracing the genetic roots of Parkinson's disease.

A Canadian member of the international research team behind a breakthrough in the fight against Parkinson's disease is crediting a Saskatchewan family with making the work possible.

"This opens up the door that I've been waiting to open for 30 years," said Dr. Ali Rajput, neurologist and expert on Parkinson's disease.

Rajput and his son Dr. Alex Rajput — who also specializes in Parkinson's disease — were part of an international research team led by human genetics researchers at the University of British Columbia. The researchers identified an abnormal gene associated with typical late-onset Lewy body Parkinson's disease. And they are thanking an extended family from Saskatchewan for playing a significant role.

Twelve of the 57 members of the family who participated in the study had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Rajput examined the first family member with Parkinson's in 1983. During the years, others came to be diagnosed with the disease. As some of the family members died, their brains were donated to Rajput's collection of more than 500 brains. The family wants to remain anonymous.

"A breakthrough like this would not be possible without their involvement and support. They gave up considerable time, contributed clinical information, donated blood samples, participated in PET imaging studies and — on more than one occasion following the death of a family member — donated brain samples," says Matthew Ferrer, the UBC medical genetics professor who led the study, in a news release issued by the University of Saskatchewan and UBC.

"We are forever indebted to their generosity and contribution to better understanding — and ultimately finding a cure — for this debilitating disease."

Symptoms of the progressive condition include tremors, slowness and stiffness, imbalance and rigidity of muscles. The condition is caused when dopamine, the chemical in the brain that carries signals between nerves, is not being produced.

The latest research determined that an abnormal gene called DNAJC13 causes dopamine-producing cells to die.

While the discovery is considered a major breakthrough, Rajput says much more work needs to be done to find ways to detect Parkinson's at its early stages and to develop drugs that will stop the progression of the disease. He's hoping some of that work will continue to be done in Saskatchewan, but that will require more neurologists to take an interest in the research. He also would like to see more people agreeing to donate organs, including their brains, for research after they die.

lhaight@thestarphoenix.com

Twitter.com/SPLanaHaight

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