An Interview with Michael A. Schwarzschild, MD PhD

Dr. Michael Schwarzschild is an Associate Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory at the MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease.  Dr. Schwarzschild's research program is currently supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense Neurotoxin Exposure Treatment Parkinson's Research (NETPR) program, and The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.

Why are you interested in Parkinson's disease?
Initially I was drawn to this field by my graduate school studies on the biochemistry of dopamine, a brain signal that facilitates normal movement.  Its levels are low in Parkinson's disease and most of our current medications for the disease try to replace or mimic it.  After I trained in neurology and then focused on movement disorders, I had the pleasure of working with Parkinson's patients and their families.  Since then, they have been my main motivation to try to understand what goes wrong in PD so that we can try to find new treatments.
Why do you focus your research on certain aspects of the disease?

A particular class of compounds called purines, which include caffeine, adenosine and urate, has been the molecular focus of my laboratory because all these molecules have been implicated as treatment targets by epidemiological studies of people who have a lower risk getting the disease.  A distinctive feature of my research approach has been to collaborate with epidemiologists to pursue clues to why some people are less likely to get the disease, or even more telling, why some people with the disease have a more favorable rate of progression over the years.

What will your research of Parkinson's disease do to move the science forward?

Our work is helping understand how blocking adenosine signals or elevating natural levels of urate might help prevent or slow the degeneration of brain cells in Parkinson's disease.  This knowledge may help design specific treatments and the clinical trials needed to test them in order to relieve some of the burden of the disease.
The $25 million Department of Defense NETPR program is the only Parkinson's-specific grant program in the federal government.
  How has NETPR helped your research?
The NETPR program has been invaluable for our research.  It has provided critical funds to allow us to conduct experiments in mice that shed light on the roles of adenosine, caffeine and urate in mouse models of the Parkinson's disease.  These studies have led us to discover novel approaches of direct therapeutic as well as biological importance.

How will your research help the Parkinson's disease community and the warfighter (dual-purpose nature of NETPR)?

Because our laboratory studies explore the interaction between environmental toxins and potentially offsetting protective exposures, they help us understand the causes and potential treatments of Parkinson's disease.  They help us understand the interplay between dangerous environmental factors to which military personnel may sometimes be exposed and protective factors that may help prevent neurological damage or to treat it should it develop later in life.
How will your research help develop a new drug/therapy for Parkinson's disease?
Our findings are already supporting the idea that drugs called adenonsine A2A blockers, which are currently being tested as symptom-improving treatments, may also help slow the rate of progression of the disease.  In addition, the work is helping develop and refine clinical research on a novel candidate protectant called inosine, for which we have begun the first clinical trials for patients with Parkinson's disease (