A Royal Free Hospital professor has received a major grant to conduct important research into Parkinson’s disease.

Professor Tony Schapira, head of clinical neurosciences at the Royal Free, is part of an international collaborative research team which has been awarded £671,000 to research the early signs of Parkinson’s in the hope of eventually developing a drug to halt or delay its progression.   

The grant was awarded by the Centre of Excellence in Neurodegeneration Research (CoEN) initiative, an international group of research funders including the UK’s Medical Research Council, who bring global researchers together to further understanding of neurodegenerative diseases. 

Professor Schapira, who is also vice dean of the UCL Medical School and director of UCL’s Royal Free Campus, said: “I am delighted to be part of one of only a few collaboratives to receive this funding, which will help to integrate Parkinson's disease research across international boundaries.

“I believe this grant is testament to both the pioneering research we have already conducted here at the UCL Medical School at the Royal Free and the cutting-edge work we are planning for the future.” 

Last year Professor Schapira and his colleagues Professors Nick Wood and John Hardy of the Institute of Neurology at UCL, were awarded a £6 million grant from the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust for a five-year research programme aimed at understanding more about the causes of Parkinson’s and identifying abnormalities in the brain which predispose people to the disease. They were also recently awarded £350,000 from Parkinson’s UK. The latest grant and the centre of excellence collaboration will help the team to continue this work, 

Professor Schapira, who works with a team of around 20 research scientists, said: “We already know quite a lot about the genetics of Parkinson’s disease. We know if a patient has the disease, there’s an increased risk of a family member developing the disease. We also know that everybody has a one in 40 chance of developing the disease at some point in their life, but if a family member has it, this chance increases two fold.

“In 1989 our team here at the UCL Medical School at the Royal Free were the first in the world to discover a defect in the brain cells of patients with Parkinson’s which contributes to the disease. This defect is caused by the part of the cell called the mitochondrion and results in it no longer being able to turn nutrients into energy. We believe this is a significant component in the development of Parkinson’s.

“The questions now are how do these genetic mutations cause the disease, and what is the mechanism by which they do this? We also want to know more about how the disease develops in patients who are not genetically predisposed to the disease. 

“The research grants will allow us to take a closer look at Parkinson’s disease at a molecular level so that we can attempt to answer these questions. We will be able to use this understanding to identify early symptoms of Parkinson’s and our ultimate aim will be to find drugs that will stop or slow the progression of the disease.” 


Notes to editors

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  • Professor Schapira will lead the UK side of the international research project, which is entitled “Mitochondrial dysfunction and susceptibility to Parkinson’s disease: new models of pathogenetic interactions.”  The international research team of which Professor Schapira is part also includes Donato A. Di Monte from the Deutsche Zentrum fur Neurodegenerative Erkrankungen, Germany, David S. Park from the Canadian Institutes of Health research, Canada, and Fabio Blandini from the Ministero della Salute, Italy. 
  • Professor Schapira’s collaborative project is one of eight such projects funded by the CoEN initiative. For more information visit www.coen.org.
  • Neurodegeneration is an umbrella term for the progressive loss of structure or function of neurons in the brain which are linked to diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. 
  • Mitchondria are the parts of the brain cells which are responsible for producing energy. A mitochondrial defect occurs when the mitochondria are no longer able to convert sugar into energy. 
  • The Royal Free is Dr Foster’s ‘large trust of the year’ for 2010. Our services have been rated “excellent” for the third year running. The trust attracts patients from across the country and beyond to its specialist services in liver, kidney and bone marrow transplantation, haemophilia, surgery for hepatopancreatobiliary (HPB) conditions, clinical neurosciences, renal, HIV, infectious diseases, plastic surgery, immunology, vascular surgery, cardiology, amyloidosis and scleroderma and are a member of the academic health science partnership UCL Partners.
  • For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including one of the first antibiotics penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century. For more information, log on to www.mrc.ac.uk.
  • Founded in 1826, UCL (University College London) was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. UCL is among the world's top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. Alumni include Marie Stopes, Jonathan Dimbleby, Lord Woolf, Alexander Graham Bell, and members of the band Coldplay. UCL currently has over 13,000 undergraduate and 9,000 postgraduate students. Its annual income is over £700 million. Visit: www.ucl.ac.uk