Scientist who identified key genetic risk factor for Parkinson’s named winner of 2019 Jay Van Andel Award

Ellen Sidransky, M.D. Photo Courtesy of National Human Genome Research Institute

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (May 1, 2019) — Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) announces renowned genetics expert Ellen Sidransky, M.D., as the 2019 winner of its annual Jay Van Andel Award for Outstanding Achievement in Parkinson’s Disease Research, which honors scientists who have made transformative contributions to the field.

Sidransky was the first to link an increase in Parkinson’s disease risk to mutations in the gene GBA, which produces an enzyme that breaks down a common lipid located in lysosomes, cells’ internal waste removal systems. Alterations in GBA are now known to be the most common genetic risk factor for Parkinson’s and dementia with Lewy bodies, and is a major target for new experimental medications designed to slow or stop progression, a feat not possible with current treatments.

“Dr. Sidransky’s revolutionary research fundamentally changed how we view the relationship between genetics and Parkinson’s,” said José Brás, Ph.D., VARI associate professor and co-chair of the 2019 Grand Challenges in Parkinson’s Disease symposium. “We are thrilled to welcome her to the Institute this summer to celebrate her exceptional achievements and hear about the innovation underway in her lab.”

Sidransky’s 2004 discovery linking GBA and Parkinson’s also was the first major genetic risk variant identified in non-familial forms of the disease, which comprise more than 90 percent of all cases. It offered new insight into the cellular mechanisms that contribute to Parkinson’s disease, and highlighted a role for lysosomes in the disease process.

For the last 19 years, Sidransky has been a tenured investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where she currently serves as chief of the Section on Molecular Neurogenetics within the National Human Genome Research Institute. She also is an international authority on Gaucher disease, a rare genetic disorder caused by problems with GBA, and dementia with Lewy bodies, a disorder that has much in common with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Sidransky will deliver a lecture on her work following the presentation of the award, which will be held at 8:00 a.m. Aug. 21, the first day of the Grand Challenges in Parkinson’s Disease symposium. This year’s theme is Understanding Genetic Risk. More information is available at grandchallengesinpd.org.


The Jay Van Andel Award for Outstanding Achievement in Parkinson’s Disease Research 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 who have positively impacted human health.

Van Andel Institute (VAI) is an independent nonprofit 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 400 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 onsite laboratories and participate in collaborative partnerships that span the globe. Learn more about Van Andel Institute at vai.org.

Media Contacts
Beth Hinshaw Hall
Van Andel Research Institute
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