Breaking the Parkinson’s bottleneck

Berg Pharma partners with Parkinson’s Institute to identify biomarkers in Parkinson’s disease

Jim Cirigliano
SUNNYVALE, Calif.—A new collaborative effort between therenowned Parkinson's Institute and Massachusetts-based pharmaceutical companyBerg Pharma aims to unlock critical information about Parkinson's disease thatcould speed the development of new therapies and diagnostic methods.
This partnership brings together two natural allies in thefight against Parkinson's disease. The Parkinson's Institute has deep expertiseand an international reputation as a stand-alone institution focused entirelyon researching and treating the disease. Berg Pharma brings to the table itstrademarked Interrogative Biology platform, which it will use to analyze themountain of data the Parkinson's Institute holds in its numerous lines of cellsand tissue samples that it has been collecting for nearly 30 years, making itone of the largest collections of its kind in the world. 
"This is perhaps the most aggressive, robust relationship todate to unite a wealth of knowledge in combination with a platform toilluminate the data," says Niven Narain, president and chief technology officeof Berg Pharma.
The goal of the collaboration is to identifybiomarkers—characteristics of cells that can be objectively measured—thatcorrelate to the progression of Parkinson's disease in cells. The inability toidentify objective indicators that mark the disease's processes at the cellularlevel has been a major bottleneck on the road to developing breakthroughtherapies. Instead, current treatments must focus on alleviating Parkinson'ssymptoms, which do not typically manifest themselves until the disease hasprogressed relatively far, and can be measured only subjectively.
In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)requires quantifiable measurements that demonstrate an experimental drug'seffectiveness. This means that garnering FDA approval for any pharmaceuticaltherapy designed to treat Parkinson's disease will be exceedingly difficultuntil objective, measurable biomarkers are discovered and can be shown to bepositively impacted by treatment. 
What makes this collaborative project stand out amongcontemporary Parkinson's research is its attempt to scan across multipledimensions simultaneously in order to isolate changes that appear in diseasedcells.
"Typically a researcher investigates one particular aspectof the cellular biology," says Parkinson's Institute Chief Operating OfficerClyde Taylor. "[The Interrogative Biology] process provides a wide set of waysto look at multiple cellular processes at the same time and analyze themtogether."
"Currently there is a high dependency on genomics," saysNarain. "People are looking for clear cause-and-effect relationships, andthey're simply throwing out the failures. But what if you have two conflictingdatasets or your science lies outside of the well-known literature?"
The Interrogative Biology platform uses artificialintelligence and algorithms to establish linkages among multiple data sets thatinclude not only genomes, but also proteomes, metabolomes and lipidomes. Theplatform compares these 'omes among cells in a healthy as well as a diseasedstates in the hopes of identifying the outliers that represent the signaturesof Parkinson's disease processes in cells. The result of running theParkinson's Institute's extensive assortment of tissues and cell lines throughthe Interrogative Biology platform will be a massive collection of new data,which may hold the key—or at least a good clue—to understanding and ultimatelytreating a disease that has so far remained enigmatic and unyielding.
"The greatest success we can hope for through this processis to open a window to the cell that will allow us to some day diagnose andtreat Parkinson's disease before physical symptoms manifest," Taylor says.
Aside from sharing mutual interest in unlocking Parkinson'sdisease, this collaboration was facilitated by the personal acquaintancebetween Berg Pharma's founder, Carl Berg, and the Parkinson's Institute'sfounder and Parkinson's research pioneer, Dr. William Langston. Berg is also aprominent member of the Silicon Valley community where the Parkinson'sInstitute is located. The two have long discussed areas of potentialcollaboration, and now appear to have found a project that brings bothorganizations' strengths and expertise to bear.
Both groups find a degree of freedom in the fact thatneither is federally funded, allowing them to collaborate more liberally andwith fewer restrictions. The Parkinson's Institute credits the CaliforniaInstitute of Regenerative Medicine for a substantial portion of its funding.
"We are two like-minded institutions intensely focused offinding key factors in the disease's pathophysiology," says Narain.
"Being nimble, entrepreneurial and innovative are the keysto unlocking this disease," adds Taylor.

Jim Cirigliano

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