Pioneering Parkinson’s disease research under threat

  • 22 Nov 2018

Cutting edge technology may need to be shelved

Parkinson’s disease is particularly cruel. It impacts your movement and mobility and even the ability to interact socially. What is worse, you are fully aware of your deterioration and limitations – and how that affects others.
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Investigating why one section of the brain deteriorates and how to combat the condition has been a 10-year quest for emerging leader in biomedical research, Dr Peter Freestone.

He is using cutting edge technology to improve the understanding of what happens to the brain of someone with Parkinson’s. Learn more about optogenetics here:

“I was drawn to the technology and equipment that recorded the electrical activity of single brain cells, excited that you could get that detail,” the father of five says. “But now I am driven by the impact of Parkinson’s – I need to do this research to be able to help these people who have it.”

“I am not pursuing ways to prevent the disease – that is a challenging task because in the vast majority of cases we do not even know what causes it. Instead, I want to improve existing treatment strategies.”

Actor Michael J Fox and Kiwi athlete Sir John Walker have the neuro degenerative disorder that causes the cells in a region of the brain to die and stop producing dopamine. These cells gradually degenerate causing a slowness in movement, a difficulty in initiating movement, a tremor in fingers and limbs, stooped posture and a loss of facial expression.

Freestone is pioneering the use of optogenetics, light-based technology, at the Faculty of Medical & Health Sciences, University of Auckland. Optogenetics is a relatively new technique in neuroscience, involving the use of light to activate single neurons within a tightly interconnected network, and allows a very high level of precision when studying brain function.

Freestone’s research aims to deepen the understanding of what changes in the Parkinson’s brain and identify more effective therapies to improve the lives of those living with the disease.
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“The outcomes from this research have the potential to have local, national and global impact,” Sue Brewster, Executive Director of the Auckland Medical Research Foundation (AMRF) says. ““The goal is to enhance current methods of diagnosis and create therapies that improve the overall quality of lives of those living with this incurable disease – and the lives of their families.”

The AMRF has been a major funder of Dr Freestone’s work and is the largest independent funder of medical research in New Zealand. Last year alone the Foundation received requests for more than $21m to fund medical research but could grant only less than 20 per cent of that.
For Freestone progressing the research is now under threat.

“The reality is that this work may have to be put on hold,” Freestone admits. “To get results we need funding. I cannot take on more students if I do not know my funding situation. The least enjoyable part of this is not knowing if you can continue your research. Every time I am writing applications for grants, is time I am not in the lab.”

He is extremely grateful to the public for their donations – and family bequests.

“Parkinson’s represents a huge loss for communities, families and the country. So anything we can do to get people with Parkinson’s maintaining a normal life – engaging in family and community life, employment – is really important.

“But will I have a salary to work on this next year? I just press on, doing the best research I can, and hope for the best.”

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