Press Release

6 Apr 2015

Van Andel Research Institute to honor two groundbreaking scientists for their contributions to Parkinson’s disease research

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (April 6, 2015)—Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) is pleased to announce that Robert Nussbaum, M.D., and Maria Grazia Spillantini, Ph.D., FMedSci, FRS, will receive the Jay Van Andel Award for Outstanding Achievement in Parkinson’s Disease Research for their groundbreaking contributions to the understanding of a hallmark feature of Parkinson’s.

Nussbaum was the senior author on a 1997 Science paper that first linked a mutation in the gene that codes for the protein alpha-synuclein to an inherited form of Parkinson’s disease. Later that year, Spillantini and her colleagues published a paper in Nature that identified alpha-synuclein as the main component of Lewy bodies in all forms of Parkinson’s, not just inherited cases. Lewy bodies are abnormal clusters of proteins that are found in the brains of people with Parkinson’s and other related neurological diseases. Scientists believe these aggregates are key to the disease process of Parkinson’s, making them a valuable target for the development of new therapies.

“The discoveries made by Dr. Nussbaum and Dr. Spillantini truly revolutionized our understanding of Parkinson’s disease,” said Patrik Brundin, M.D., Ph.D., VARI’s associate director of research and director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Science. “The study of alpha-synuclein’s role in Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases has become an absolutely crucial area of research and provides hope for new treatments that can slow or stop disease progression.”

Nussbaum is currently a professor in the Department of Medicine and chief of the Division of Genomic Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He also holds the Holly Smith Distinguished Professorship in Science and Medicine. Spillantini is a professor of molecular neurology at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Clinical Neuroscience in the United Kingdom.

VARI will present Nussbaum and Spillantini with the Jay Van Andel Award for Outstanding Achievement in Parkinson’s Disease Research during the first day of its next Grand Challenges in Parkinson’s Disease symposium, which will be held Sept. 30–Oct. 1, 2015 at VARI in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As part of the award, Nussbaum and Spillantini will each give a 30-minute talk on their research. This year’s Grand Challenges theme is The Role of Alpha-Synuclein. Registration opens April 6 at

The award was established in 2012 in memory of Van Andel Institute founder Jay Van Andel, who battled Parkinson’s disease for a decade before his death in 2004. The award is given to scientists who have made outstanding contributions to Parkinson’s disease research and have positively impacted human health. Past winners include Dr. Andrew John Lees; Dr. Alim-Louis Benabid; and Dr. Andrew Singleton.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease marked by slowness of movement, tremors and rigidity, along with non-motor symptoms such as depression, gastrointestinal issues, loss of sense of smell and cognitive impairment. Motor symptoms occur after brain cells that produce a neurotransmitter called dopamine become injured and die. Currently, scientists don’t know exactly how these cells become damaged but believe it is a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Seven to 10 million people worldwide have Parkinson’s disease.

Through its Center for Neurodegenerative Science, VARI has a strong commitment to studying Parkinson’s and elucidating its causes, as well as developing new therapies that slow or stop disease progression and repair the brain.

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Van Andel Institute (VAI) is an independent biomedical research and science education organization committed to improving the health and enhancing the lives of current and future generations. Established by Jay and Betty Van Andel in 1996 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, VAI has grown into a premier research and educational institution that supports the work of more than 270 scientists, educators and staff. Van Andel Research Institute (VARI), VAI’s research division, is dedicated to determining the epigenetic, genetic, molecular and cellular origins of cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases and translating those findings into effective therapies. The Institute’s scientists work in on-site laboratories and participate in collaborative partnerships that span the globe. Learn more about Van Andel Institute or donate by visiting 100% To Research, Discovery & Hope®