Press Release

10 Mar 2014

Van Andel Research Institute expands its Parkinson’s disease program with the addition of two groundbreaking scientists

Biomedical research institute appoints two key positions, expanding its impact on neurodegenerative science

Grand Rapids, Mich. (Mar. 10, 2014) – Van Andel Research Institute’s Center for Neurodegenerative Science continues to expand its research portfolio and increase its impact in the field of Parkinson’s disease research. The Center recently appointed Dr. Jiyan Ma, whose laboratory studies prions, the misfolded proteins associated with many contagious neurodegenerative diseases, and Dr. Darren Moore, who studies the role of the LRRK2 gene found in hereditary Parkinson’s disease. These two accomplished scientists are focused on specific, nuanced areas of Parkinson’s disease research that have far-reaching implications for the way the disease is viewed and treated.

A native of Shanghai, Ma attended Shanghai Medical College and received his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He previously served as an associate professor at the Ohio State University. As professor and head of the Laboratory of Prion Mechanisms in Neurodegeneration at Van Andel Research Institute, Ma aims to develop disease-modifying therapeutics that combat the degenerative qualities of Parkinson’s disease. His research also focuses on how misfolded proteins like alpha-synuclein are linked to the spread of Parkinson’s disease in the brain, and the relationship between prions and other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

“I want to collaborate with other scientists in the Center to go after these research problems from a variety of different angles, and then combine our knowledge in order to bring about a new discovery,” said Ma. “Just as Albert Szent-Györgyi said, ‘Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.’”

Ma’s previous research delved into prions’ role in contagious neurodegenerative diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) and its human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. This work earned Ma two prestigious federal research grants from the National Institutes of Health, which will aid his research at Van Andel Research Institute. Ma shares the emerging view that there is a connection between the way prions spread contagious neurodegenerative diseases and how they propagate Parkinson’s disease within the human brain. Part of Ma’s team will contribute to this area of research.

Like Ma, Dr. Darren Moore is studying a very significant yet specialized area of Parkinson’s disease. Moore’s research is centered on a gene called leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2) and its role in hereditary Parkinson’s disease. Moore, who will lead the Laboratory of Molecular Neurodegeneration, comes to Van Andel Research Institute from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Moore has developed unique disease models with LRRK2 and hopes to further explore how the gene interacts with known Parkinson’s disease-related proteins such as alpha-synuclein and tau.

“LRRK2 seems to be connected to everything else. We are interested in how it cross-talks with other proteins,” said Moore. “LRRK2 patients usually have alpha-synuclein and tau pathology in their brains, and this pathology is somewhat distinct from most other Parkinson’s patients yet nonetheless intriguing.”

Moore’s research will continue to focus on investigating gene products associated with inherited forms of Parkinson’s disease, including the LRRK2 (also known as PARK8) gene product as well as other novel genes associated with the disease. His lab plans on utilizing a series of unique disease modeling strategies including baker’s yeast, neuronal cultures, human brain tissue, and animal models to better understand how these specific proteins contribute to neurodegeneration in the human brain.

Drawn to the innovative research approach found at Van Andel Research Institute and the vision of Center Director Dr. Patrik Brundin, Moore is optimistic for the future of the Center for Neurodegenerative Science.

“I like the idea that there are big plans to make Van Andel Research Institute one of the most influential centers for Parkinson’s disease research in the United States,” said Moore.

Since its creation in 2011, the Center has experienced impressive growth under Brundin’s leadership and currently employs about 30 people. Ma and Moore’s targeted approaches to neurodegenerative disease research will enhance the portfolio of Van Andel Research Institute’s Center for Neurodegenerative Science and provide fertile ground for the development of new, innovative therapeutics for Parkinson’s disease.

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About Van Andel Institute

Established by Jay and Betty Van Andel in 1996, Van Andel Institute is an independent research and educational organization based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Through biomedical research and science education, Van Andel Institute is committed to improving the health and enhancing the lives of current and future generations. Find out more about Van Andel Institute or donate by visiting www.vai.org. 100% To Research, Discovery & Hope®