VARI’s first Fulbright Scholar takes on a devastating neurological disorder

Since 1946, the Fulbright Program has supported academic and research exchanges for graduate students and recent graduates in more than 160 countries. Dr. Wouter Peelaerts, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Patrik Brundin, is the first Fulbright Scholar to conduct research at Van Andel Research Institute.

Originally from Belgium, Wouter earned his Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from KU Leuven, where he studied in the lab of respected neuroscientist and Parkinson’s expert Dr. Veerle Baekelandt. His current research focuses on a progressive neurological disease called multiple system atrophy, which shares many of the same features as Parkinson’s disease, from some of its symptoms to its suspected cause.

We caught up with Wouter to discuss MSA, the importance of getting the patient perspective and the future of research and treatment.

Multiple system atrophy (MSA) shares many similarities with Parkinson’s, yet they are also
very different.
MSA is a rare disease caused by a breakdown of the body’s most basic and vital functions, including the ability to move and the ability to regulate blood pressure, digestion and heart rate. Although it can resemble Parkinson’s in its early stages, it quickly differentiates itself based on its rapid progression.

“MSA is much more widespread than Parkinson’s on a system-wide level, and also is more aggressive,” Peelaerts said. “Moreover, there are no treatments for MSA. Even levodopa, which can help people with Parkinson’s retain control over voluntary movement, is largely ineffective in MSA.”

The similarities—and the differences—between the two diseases go beyond symptoms, down to the molecular level. Both have been linked to dysfunctional forms of a protein called alpha-synuclein, clumps of which are found in the brain cells of people with Parkinson’s, MSA and other neurodegenerative disorders.

“The difference between these diseases is based on the way alpha-synuclein aggregates, or sticks together, as well as which brain cells are affected,” he explained. “What this means is that if we find a treatment for MSA, it’s likely that it will work in Parkinson’s as well.”

Engaging with patients provides important perspective and motivation.
While completing his graduate studies at Belgium’s KU Leuven, Peelaerts took part in an event for World MSA Day, which welcomed people with the disease to campus to meet with MSA experts. It was tough but incredibly valuable, and further motivated him to help figure out exactly what goes wrong in MSA and how to slow or stop its progression.

“It was a very confronting experience. We do research to help people, and it’s frustrating for everyone involved to have to say or hear that we don’t have a treatment or a cure yet,” Peelaerts said. “As a scientist, you need to be able to communicate what you do and meet people with the disease you study. It’s critical to get the patient perspective.”

We know more about MSA now than ever before. And that makes all the difference.
Many of the revelations that have transformed our understanding of Parkinson’s and alpha-synuclein also have illuminated previously unknown facets of MSA. This could prompt big changes in how we view the disease and, hopefully, also lead to desperately needed treatment breakthroughs.

For example, mounting evidence suggests that diabetes also shares some of the same underlying molecular biology as Parkinson’s and that problems with the intricate systems that keep cells healthy could allow abnormal alpha-synuclein to build up.

The same thing may be happening in MSA, meaning that medications originally developed to treat diabetes should be investigated as potential new treatments for both MSA and Parkinson’s, Peelaerts said. And that’s exactly what he is doing now, with an experimental medication called MSDC-0160.

“We’re at a tipping point where basic science has provided a wealth of evidence and new ideas—now, it’s time for translational science to take them into the clinic,” Peelaerts says. “Even just a few years ago, we didn’t have the perspective we do now. I’m cautiously optimistic but optimistic nonetheless.”