Stevens Foundation grant establishes the Parkinson’s Disease Center of Excellence

The Perry and Ruby Stevens Foundation awarded UT Health San Antonio $1.5 million to support its new center of excellence for the prevention, research, and treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease is the second most common age-related neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s disease, with an estimated seven to 10 million patients worldwide. Over 1 million people in the U.S. suffer with Parkinson’s disease and about 60,000 Americans are diagnosed annually.

There is no known cure or understanding of what causes Parkinson’s disease. For those diagnosed there is only treatment for the symptoms of this progressive neurodegenerative disease.

The need for more research on its underlying causes drove the creation of this new Parkinson’s center.

The Parkinson’s Disease Center of Excellence will reside within UT Health’s Institute for Integration of Medicine and Science (IIMS). The center’s logo will be unveiled at its inaugural Lecture Series Feb. 2 featuring Marcel Daadi, Ph.D., a Texas BioMed researcher specializing in translational research for clinical use in Parkinson’s disease.

Andrea Giuffrida, Ph.D. and UT Health’s vice president for research, applied for the grant with Drs. Clark and Strong, after receiving his first Foundation grant in 2014 to support a collaborative Parkinson’s disease research project with investigator, Dr. Anna Carta at University of Cagliari based in Italy. The center’s three co-directors are Dr. Giuffrida,  IIMS director Bob Clark, M.D., and Randy Strong, Ph.D., from the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies.

“This philanthropic gift will play a key role in developing a critical mass of biomedical scientists in the area of PD and providing resources to them,” Dr. Guiffrida said. “This Center of Excellence will build on our institutional commitment to create a world class research environment in aging and neurodegenerative diseases and leverage existing strengths and collaborations with our external partners including UTSA, Texas Biomed, SwRI, and the UT System.”

Having worked on Parkinson’s disease over the past 10 years, Dr. Clark predicts there will be much collaboration between the new center and the Barshop Institute and Biggs Institute, South Texas’ first Institute for Alzheimer and Neurodegenerative Diseases.

“Coming up with an intervention that will be capable of halting the progression of the disease is the ‘holy grail’ in the field—developing neuroprotective therapies such as gene therapies and cell-based approaches used in stem cell regenerative medicine,” said Dr. Clark.

This grant lays the foundations to apply in a few years for one of the NIH-funded Udall Centers of Excellence. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), which supports basic, translational, and clinical Parkinson’s disease research, developed the Udall Parkinson’s Disease Research Centers of Excellence program in honor of former Arizona congressman Morris Udall.

There are eight Udall centers in the U.S., however, none are in Texas. The Udall Center of Excellence designation is the most respected and sought after in the field of movement disorders, and requires each center to meet rigorous clinical, research and professional education criteria and offer community outreach programs.

“We found it more useful to fund a center and build the infrastructure that would train and attract more Parkinson’s disease researchers and clinicians,” Dr. Strong said. “Community outreach and education via the lecture series will also support the center’s goals.”

“The purpose of the center is to build up our Parkinson’s disease research by supporting specific research projects and young faculty researchers, as well as by hosting a monthly seminar series,” Dr. Clark said. “We hope that over the next five years we reach a critical mass of Parkinson’s researchers and research programs, which is a crucial step toward evolving into an Udall Center of Excellence in the future.”

“The value of the interprofessional team approach as an integral piece of a viable, integrated health care model is more powerful when coupled with the uniqueness of research integrated into patient care, director of physical therapy at UT Health,” Dr. Sheri Fossler Huehn, (’15 DPT) explains. Community involvement via the center’s lecture series will be critical as “it helps direct community members and potential patients to the resources out there that are available for them,” said Dr. Huehn.

“UT Health is the first institution where I have practiced where we as the physical therapists have had such direct access to our referring providers,” said Dr. Huehn, who has been in clinical practice for 20 years.  “Having a center of excellence demonstrates to the community that we are committed to providing the best clinical care to these patients as well as targeting research to learn more about the disease.”

“Patient outreach is essential to increasing services to many who can benefit from translational research,” said Dianne Johnson, a UT Health senior clinical research nurse who works closely with Parkinson’s patients and has been involved in the local chapter of the American Parkinson’s Disease Association for over 23 years.

“It’s important to have continuity of care for these patients, for them to have a ‘one-stop shop’ to access therapies, benefit from ongoing research, and receive treatment for the disease,” Johnson said. “Once this Center gets going, we can reach more of the underserved demographic in San Antonio and have them come here for these vital services.”


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