Eliminating ‘bad chaperone’ proteins to find a cure for Parkinson’s

Dr. KaliaDr. Suneil Kalia

Assistant Professor, University of Toronto

Scientist, Toronto Western Research Institute

One of the most difficult aspects of Dr. Suneil Kalia's practice as a neurosurgeon is the moment he tells a patient that neurologists no longer have anything to offer them that will significantly relieve their Parkinson’s symptoms.

“Our therapies only target certain areas of the disease, but do not target the disease as a whole,” says Kalia, a neurosurgeon at Toronto Western Hospital. “At some point, we become limited in our ability to help our patients.”

This frustration drove Dr. Kalia in a new direction to help people living with Parkinson’s. Already both a neurosurgeon and a molecular biologist, he also became a neuroscientist.

Dr. Kalia is focused on so-called “chaperone” proteins. These proteins can accompany another protein called alpha-synuclein. Misfolded or misshaped clumps of alpha-synuclein can accumulate in dopamine-producing brain cells and cause them to die. Since these brain cells are critical to controlling movement, their death causes Parkinson's disease.

Dr. Kalia believes identifying the role of these chaperone proteins and their relationship to alpha-synuclein would go a long way to solving the puzzle of why the dopamine neurons die. Using a type of gene therapy that delivers a virus to dopamine-producing neurons, Kalia hopes to eliminate the bad chaperone proteins and save the brain cells that are so critically involved in the motor symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

“If we inhibit these molecules, we have the potential of stopping or reversing the degenerative process, and... this could be a novel class of therapies for the disease,” Kalia says.

The resilience of his patients inspires Kalia, who hopes his research will eventually lead to a single treatment that will significantly improve the lives of people living with Parkinson's disease.