Genome Research Study Led by State Health Department Scientist Links Parkinson's Disease to Body's Immune System

Study to be Featured in Nature Genetics Magazine

ALBANY, N.Y. (August 13, 2010) – An international team of health researchers led by Dr. Haydeh Payami, a scientist at the State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center, has identified a link between Parkinson's disease and the gene HLA-DR, which plays a role in the body's immune system. The finding suggests the disease may have an autoimmune or infectious origin.

The study, "Common Genetic Variation in the HLA Region is Associated with Late-onset Sporadic Parkinson's disease," conducted by the NeuroGenetics Research Consortium (NGRC) will be featured in the August 15, 2010 online issue of Nature Genetics, a leading scientific publication.

"The Wadsworth Center Laboratory is home to some of the top health scientists in the world and their innovative research is producing dramatic results," New York State Health Commissioner Richard F. Daines, M.D., said. "We are proud of the work being done by researchers like Dr. Payami and will continue to support their efforts to protect public health."

The NGRC team has been studying more than 2,000 Parkinson's disease patients and 2,000 healthy volunteers from their own health clinics for nearly 20 years. They have been collecting data to determine clinical, genetic and environmental factors that may contribute to the development and/or progression of Parkinson's disease and its complications. For the study published yesterday, 1 million genetic markers were analyzed for each of the 4,000 research subjects to find genes for Parkinson's disease.

"The finding is only one piece of a bigger puzzle," said Dr. Payami. "Parkinson's disease has turned out to be quite complex. Finding all the genes and environmental triggers, and fitting them together is not an easy task, but fortunately, the Parkinson's disease research community is working together and making good progress."

HLA-DR is essential to the body distinguishing foreign invaders or antigens from the body's own tissues. HLA-DR presents antigens, often foreign in origin such as a virus or bacterium, to the immune cells (T-cells) and initiates a cascade of events that destroys the foreign antigen.

Certain variants of HLA-DR are known to be associated with increased risk or protection against infectious disease. Although HLA molecules should recognize the body's own tissue and not initiate an immune reaction against them, certain variants of gene can induce autoimmune disorders that cause the immune system to attack the body's own tissues.

Multiple sclerosis (MS), a neurologic disease caused by autoimmunity, is also associated with HLA-DR. The NGRC study found that the genetic variant associated with Parkinson's disease is located in the same region as the variant associated with MS.

The genetic link identified in the study will encourage researchers to take a fresh look at the role autoimmunity, inflammation and infection may plan in the development of Parkinson's disease.

"We are now mining the data for gene-environment interactions, looking for environmental triggers and protectors," Dr. Payami said. "Our goal is to develop genetically-personalized therapeutics to treat and prevent Parkinson's disease.

To support additional research efforts, the data are available on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website for use by qualified researchers world-wide.

"It took 18 years to build the infrastructure of the study and only few months to execute it," said Dr. Payami. "The association of Parkinson's risk with HLA-DR is the first finding from the newly completed, vast database."

NGRC Investigators also expressed their gratitude to the dedicated individuals who volunteer as research subjects, including some who have been partners in the study for nearly two decades, noting that research of this type could not be done without their participation.

Dr. Payami started the study in Oregon in 1992 and moved to the Wadsworth Center in 2002. Clinical directors for the study are Dr. Cyrus Zabetian at the University of Washington, Dr. Stewart Factor at Emory University and Dr. John Nutt at Oregon and Health Sciences University.

The study was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and an award from The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research Edmond J. Safra Global Genetics Consortia initiative.