Environment, Genetics Together Likely Contribute to Parkinson's Onset: PAN Hosts Briefing on Capitol Hill

On October 11, the Parkinson’s Action Network (PAN) hosted a briefing – “Environmental Science and Parkinson’s Disease” – in the Rayburn House Office Building for Capitol Hill staff and members of the biomedical research community to give federally funded researchers and agency heads the opportunity to provide an update on their work.  At this briefing, three expert panelists explored the innovative and exciting new science underway around the connection between environmental exposures, genes, and Parkinson’s disease.

Federal funding of Parkinson’s disease research is critical to developing new and better treatments and, ultimately, a cure.  In FY 2011, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded $151 million for Parkinson’s research, and the Department of Defense spent $16 million in FY 2012 to better understand the disease.

“To be most effective in our advocacy, it’s important that the research community discuss their work, as well as areas for future investment,” said PAN CEO Amy Comstock Rick.  “The focus for our most recent briefing was how environment and genetics, together, interact in Parkinson’s disease.”

PAN’s Director of Policy Development, Jennifer Sheridan, introduces the expert speakers.PAN’s Director of Policy Development, Jennifer Sheridan, introduces the expert speakers.

Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) at the NIH, kicked off the briefing by providing an overview of NIEHS’ Parkinson’s disease research program.  She spoke about how a full understanding of Parkinson’s disease risk will require integrated efforts in genetic and environmental risks – that environmental and genetic studies can and should inform one another, and could lead to better prevention strategies.  This view was shared by the other speakers at the event, as well.

Colonel Karl E. Friedl, Ph.D., is the Director of the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command Center at Fort Detrick, Maryland.  During his presentation, he updated the attendees on the progress being made in the Department of Defense Neurotoxin Exposure Treatment Parkinson’s Research (NETPR) program.  He spoke about the Center’s work in funding research on the effects of risk factors such as traumatic brain injury and chemical exposure.  He also stressed the importance of identifying Parkinson’s biomarkers so that earlier detection of Parkinson’s can allow for more effective intervention.

More than 80 Hill staffers and community members attended PAN’s briefing.More than 80 Hill staffers and community members attended PAN’s briefing.

The third speaker in the program was Dr. Caroline Tanner, Director of Clinical Research at the Parkinson’s Institute in Sunnyvale, California.  Tanner reinforced the belief that most Parkinson’s disease is likely due to the combined effects of genetic predisposition and environmental exposures.   She spoke about the Institute’s work with the California Parkinson’s Disease Registry, and also shared new research on the risks of Parkinson’s disease associated with the herbicide paraquat.  This new research finding was published in an article in the journal Movement Disorders called “Genetic Modification of the Association of Paraquat and Parkinson’s Disease.”  The research found that “exposure to one of the most widespread herbicides in the world, paraquat, may increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease, dramatically so in individuals carrying a common genetic variation.”  She called for further investigation of the combined effects of environmental and genetic risks so that at-risk individuals can be identified, biomarkers can be found, and interventions developed to prevent motor impairment or slow progression of the disease.  Following the presentations, attendees asked questions about funding, better reporting of successes, risks of exposure to carbon monoxide, and other topics. 

PAN looks forward to hosting more educational briefings in the future as part of its efforts to educate policymakers on the importance of federal research funding and policy support for the 500,000 – 1.5 million Americans living with Parkinson’s disease.

From L to R:  PAN CEO Amy Comstock Rick, NIEHS Director Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Colonel Karl E. Friedl, Dr. Caroline Tanner of the Parkinson’s Institute, and PAN Director of Policy Development Jennifer SheridanFrom L to R:  PAN CEO Amy Comstock Rick, NIEHS Director Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Colonel Karl E. Friedl, Dr. Caroline Tanner of the Parkinson’s Institute, and PAN Director of Policy Development Jennifer Sheridan