National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences awards FIU’s Stempel College $6.6 million to study Parkinson’s disease

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has awarded Kim Tieu, professor and interim chair of the department of Environmental Health Sciences at FIU’s Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work, a $6.6 million grant to study how brain cells die in Parkinson’s disease and to develop effective drug therapies for this brain condition.

Known as the NIEHS Revolutionizing Innovative, Visionary Environmental health Research (RIVER) program, this grant provides outstanding investigators the flexibility and stability to conduct transformative research with continuous funding for eight years.

Parkinson’s disease is currently the second most prevalent neurodegenerative disease affecting more than 10 million people worldwide. With Parkinson’s disease, a specific type of neurons in the brain break down or die, leading to a decrease in a brain chemical known as dopamine, resulting in movement impairment. To date, it has been estimated that less than 10 percent of Parkinson’s disease cases are the result of genetic mutations. While the remaining cases are of unknown causes, environmental factors have been strongly implicated.

“We know that the environment plays a crucial role in overall health, including the brain, and that exposures to environmental toxicants, most likely in combination with an individual’s genetic makeup, may lead to all sorts of diseases, including Parkinson’s,” Tieu said. “Some of the environmental factors that we will study are manganese and pesticides to better understand how they promote the accumulation and spread of toxic proteins in the brain.”

Based on his recent discovery of a new function of dynamin related protein-1 (Drp1), which is commonly known to split mitochondria (the powerhouses of the cell), Tieu will research Drp1’s role in the accumulation of toxic proteins and how different types of brain cells and gene environment interact with each other leading to cell death. Tieu and his team will also study how gut bacteria may cause Parkinson’s disease, a relatively new area of interest in the field of Parkinson’s disease.

“New evidence suggests that the accumulation of toxic protein in Parkinson’s disease may not start from the brain itself, but rather may spread from the gut. This is something that we need to investigate further and try to stop it,” said Tieu.  

The ultimate goal for Tieu and his team is to contribute to the development of new therapeutic interventions for Parkinson’s disease.

“This is an amazing achievement for Dr. Tieu and the college! Not only is this one of the largest grants that the college has received, but it is particularly important for Dr. Tieu and we are very proud of him,” said Tomás R. Guilarte, dean of Stempel College. “The R35 RIVER grant is given to outstanding investigators in environmental health sciences, giving him and his lab the freedom to do research over several years with the support of NIEHS.”

Guilarte noted that Tieu came to FIU as a cluster hire for FIU’s Brain, Behavior, and the Environment (BBE) emerging preeminent program.

“This grant award is a direct result of our investment on the BBE Emerging Preeminent Program,” Guilarte said. 

Tieu will continue to head the Parkinson’s Disease Research Laboratory at Stempel College, which expects to grow as a result of the grant to include more students, postdoctoral researchers and technicians. The co-investigators on the project are Tomás R. Guilarte, dean of Stempel College and professor; Stanislaw F. Wnuk, professor of chemistry at the College of Arts, Science and Education and associate dean of graduate education at Stempel College; and Yuk-Ching Tse-Dinh, director of the Bimolecular Sciences Institute.

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