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Game changer
April 2014
by Ilene Schneider  |  Email the author
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FRAMINGHAM, Mass.—About one million Americans live with Parkinson’s disease, about 50,000 new cases are diagnosed each year and the numbers could double by 2030. Although there are so many cases of Parkinson’s and such a high cost to the healthcare system (an estimated $50 billion over the next 10 years), little is known about this complex disease.
 
To help turn this around, Berg, a biopharmaceutical company committed to uncovering health solutions through a data-driven, biological research approach, has announced the next phase in an ongoing partnership with the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center (while Berg’s Innovation Center is Massachusetts-based, the company’s corporate office is near the Parkinson’s Institute, based in Cupertino, Calif.) They hope to identify potential biomarkers that may lead to breakthroughs in the research, diagnosis and treatment of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive movement-related disorder of the central nervous system.
 
“Parkinson’s is frustrating, because it has both genetic and environmental causes,” explains Dr. Birgitt Schuele, associate professor and director of gene discovery and stem cell modeling at the Parkinson’s Institute, which positions itself as America’s only independent, non-profit organization that brings together world-class care, laboratory research, clinical research and clinical trials for Parkinson’s disease under one roof. “We’re using the same medications as we did 20 or 30 years ago, because it’s not simply a virus or bacterium or gene disease that can be easily targeted.”
 
The two organizations began their initial efforts two years ago. They are the first team to approach biomarker discovery by looking at proteomics, metabolomics and lipidomics, in addition to clinical data, simultaneously in human patients and controls from the same cohort. Berg will handle the biology and informatics while the Parkinson’s Institute will provide tissue and other samples to validate the approach with live patients.
 
Using Berg’s Interrogative Biology platform to analyze multi-omic tissue samples (skin fibroblasts, blood and urine) supplied by the Parkinson’s Institute, this collaboration will identify the differences between healthy and diseased tissues in an effort to unravel the mysteries of Parkinson’s disease. Niven R. Narain, Berg’s co-founder, president and chief technology officer, describes Interrogative Biology as “a disruptive approach to discover drug targets.”
 
The approach, he explains, creates disease-relevant models and an artificial intelligence system to which patient samples are subjected. “You can’t take today’s cutting-edge technologies and put them with yesterday’s responses, so you have to come out with maps that represent health and disease and then go back into the wet chemistry labs,” he says.
 
The new clinical study launched at the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center will collect urine, blood, and other relevant tissue samples from people living with Parkinson’s disease. These materials will be used to validate biomarker candidates identified previously from the collaboration. Most importantly, this will represent a first in merging patients’ molecular and clinical information to develop profiles that will drive the development of biomarkers.
 
“This partnership harnesses the exceptional clinical expertise and superior research resources of the Parkinson’s Institute, along with Berg’s unique ability to integrate patient-specific molecular data with clinical and demographic information,” Narain says. The expectation for this partnership is that it will help lead to a greater understanding of Parkinson’s disease and the development of new tools that can change its course.
 
“Through our collaboration with Berg, we hope to identify predictors for the disease and potential new drug targets,” Schuele adds. “Armed with this information, we will be able to better diagnose and develop therapies that can treat and perhaps even halt the neurological damage caused by Parkinson’s.”
 
The initial agreement is for five years, but the partners expect to extend it as they find neurodegenerative markers, according to Narain, who adds, “We will attempt to elucidate the steps of neurodegeneration and determining the networks involved.”
 
One fundamental and defining contribution of the Berg-Parkinson’s Institute collaboration will be to provide hallmark insights into disease pathophysiology. The challenge with Parkinson’s, as with most central nervous system diseases is the lack of understanding of the molecular pathways and drivers of disease pathophysiology, making the anchor points less clear than they are with other disease states, the collaborators say. Berg is confident that the combination of tissue samples and expertise from the Parkinson’s Institute, together with the Interrogative Biology platform, will “usher in a paradigm shift in Parkinson’s disease.”
 
Code: E041406

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