Scott Ryan’s Parkinson’s stem cell research garnering international recognition

Dr. Scott Ryan

When Scott Ryan travelled to Sweden earlier this year, he was keen to share the Parkinson’s research results from his small lab team at the University of Guelph. He was even more thrilled to have his poster presentation be one of five winning posters, out of 1,700, at the International Society for Stem Cell Research conference.

A native of St. John’s Newfoundland, neuroscientist and assistant professor Ryan, 35, last year received a two-year, $90,000, Pedaling for Parkinson’s New Investigator Award through Parkinson Society Canada’s National Research Program. Now at the halfway point, his project is gaining international interest.

In the quest to discover what’s killing the dopamine-producing cells whose death results in Parkinson’s disease, Ryan is honing in on a group of proteins that turn signaling networks in the brain on and off. He is concentrating on the balance between cell generation and degeneration, and on finding ways to reverse the latter. Ryan uses a model of Parkinson’s disease derived from the skin of a patient with a familial form of Parkinson’s. Once in culture, the donor cells were reprogrammed into stem cells and researchers were able to correct the genetic mutation that caused the disease, in this case a mutation in the alpha-synuclein gene.

Ryan is using this model and system to identify a family of proteins, called transcription factors, in dopamine-producing cells. He describes these proteins – including one called MEF2 – as a “pro-survival team” that can keep the dopamine-producing cells alive.

If disease mutations or environmental contaminants like pesticides or herbicides evoke stress in the energy-producing portions of the cells called mitochondria, the stress can turn off the survival team’s signaling network and block their ability to keep dopamine producing cells alive.

“The more stress that builds up, the more you deactivate (the proteins) until you reach a critical level, and the cell dies,” Ryan explains.

By working with a drug discovery and development group, Ryan hopes to test different compounds on the stem cell model of Parkinson’s disease, to find one that will turn the pro-survival signaling network he has discovered back on. He hopes his discoveries will apply to both familial forms of Parkinson’s disease – something that runs in his own family – and non-familial, or sporadic, forms.

“It really doesn’t matter why you have Parkinson’s, because what’s defective seems to be common in all forms, at a cellular level,” Ryan says.

Because Ryan’s work involves a model made from Parkinson’s disease patient cells, he hopes his discoveries will be easier to move to the clinic to help treat patients, compared with animal models of drug discovery.

“Translating it to humans will be less of an issue,” he predicts.

Ryan’s research career has progressed steadily, with every step contributing to the work he is doing today. And PSC’s National Research Program has played an important supporting role in his development. His fourth-year research project on how fatty acids affect signaling in cell and gene expression sparked his interest in continuing in the research field. Subsequent supervisors and mentors in Ottawa and California helped hone his skills.

“My Ph.D. supervisor Steffany Bennett at the University of Ottawa was instrumental in training me in how to approach research problems and how to think about science,” he says. “That’s also when I began studying neuroscience and I was drawn to Parkinson’s disease.”

The interest in Parkinson’s disease reaches back to his family roots in St. John’s. His grandfather and his great uncle both had Parkinson’s. “Until I was 10, I spent time after school at my grandparents’ house, just up the street,” he says.

After completing his Ph.D. Ryan was well-prepared to work with his next mentor Dr. Rashmi Kothary at OHRI (Ottawa Hospital Research Institute), who was studying several movement disorders. “He was associate director of the Institute and I was given the freedom to explore my own ideas and follow through,” says Ryan. He investigated the molecular underpinnings of a type of dystonia.

Funding from PSC’s National Research Program enabled Ryan to complete an international stint at the renowned Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute (now called the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute) with neurologist and scientist Dr. Stuart Lipton.

“Dr. Lipton developed one of the only drugs currently in use for advanced Alzheimer’s disease,” says Ryan. “And his lab was run very much like an industry lab, conducting research and translating the results for therapeutic use. They were doing patient-derived stem cell research and I was able to apply this to my own work.”

Ryan began working on Parkinson’s disease in California with a large team of about 40 people. “In addition to the research, I learned to work with industry stakeholders, an increasingly important skill for researchers,” he says. A publication in the respected journal Cell was a significant accomplishment from this time.

Now at the University of Guelph, Ryan has his own lab, including a lab manager and post-doctoral, graduate and undergraduate researchers. The Pedaling for Parkinson’s New Investigator Award from Parkinson Society Canada’s National Research Program has helped make this a reality. In addition, he’s been able to parlay his earlier successes with PSC funding into another large, and unique funding partnership through the University of Guelph. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Grain Farmers of Ontario have granted him $300,000 over three years to explore whether dietary Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease.

“Research in Parkinson’s is definitely accelerating, driven in large part, by stem cell research and international collaboration, Ryan says. “This disease is an excellent candidate for a stem cell application. We know the location in the brain that is affected; we know that neurons are dying. And there is a large enough patient population that there is public interest, political will, interested funders and the potential to make a substantial impact on human health. It cannot be long now, before we find both lifestyle treatments and new drug treatments to prevent Parkinson’s and eventually alleviate its symptoms.”

To find out more about current and past projects funded through Parkinson Society Canada’s National Research Program, click here.

The time is ripe to press the Parkinson’s Community’s political agenda

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On October 19 Canadians across the country will head to the polls to cast their votes and then await the news of who will form their next federal government. And since last March, Parkinson Society Canada’s more than 150 Ambassadors have been preparing for and visiting MPs and candidates to discuss the issues and promote the policies that will make a difference to the lives of Canadians living with Parkinson’s.

“Election campaigns and the first 100 days that a new government is in place, are critical times for informing and influencing elected officials,” says Vanessa Foran, Vice President of Public Affairs and National Programs for Parkinson Society Canada. “It’s when they are the most opento the opinions and priorities of voters in their ridings.”

Our Parkinson’s Ambassadors are promoting the following national priorities:

  1. Comprehensive genetic fairness legislation and policies that protect Canadians against genetic discrimination from both employers and insurance companies.
  2. A national seniors’ strategy, like the one being proposed by the Canadian Medical Association and its alliance partners, including PSC. The strategy should address the social, economic and health care needs of our older citizens in a consistent and coordinated fashion, across the country.
  3. The need to build on the findings of the National Population Health Study of Neurological Conditions, published last year, and increase investment in neuroscience research.

We are incredibly proud of all that our Ambassadors have achieved to date, and there are still many communities that need our representation. We could use your help to explain to candidates and MPs the needs of the Parkinson’s Community during this election campaign and in the critical first few months of the new government. We will provide you with the training and support you need to ensure that you are fully prepared to have an impact, in a way that’s meaningful to you.

“Regardless of the outcome of the election, one third of MPs will be new to the job and new MPs are often the most open to making a difference for their constituents,” says Foran.

You can help move Parkinson’s issues forward during the 2015 election campaign and beyond by becoming a Parkinson’s Ambassador in your riding. Whether you are a person living with Parkinson’s, a caregiver to someone living with the disease, or simply want to help with the cause, you can be a champion in your community by being the voice for Canadians with Parkinson’s.

For more information, please contact us at advocacy@parkinson.ca. You can also find out more about our Parkinson’s Ambassador program by visiting our website at parkinsonambassador.ca.

Outstanding volunteers show true prairie spirit

Randy Dittmar
Randy Dittmar

It was love that brought Randy Dittmar to Saskatoon from Oshawa, and it is his humanity, dedication and creativity that kept him helping others after the loss of his wife from breast cancer 15 years ago and his diagnosis of young-onset Parkinson’s disease a year later at 49 years of age.

Two years later he found himself at a Parkinson Society support group meeting and it was daunting. “I was very discouraged at first, seeing others whose disease was further along. I know now that others often feel the same way when they first go to a group,” he says.

Volunteering with Parkinson Society Saskatchewan has been deeply satisfying for Randy and even fun. After several years attending a support group, the former leader Frank Funk asked Randy to take his place as the group’s Chair. “I had never been a leader before, but I enjoyed helping people and sharing information with them,” he says. Since then, Randy has exemplified enthusiastic and inspiring leadership for close to a decade.

And he has accomplished so much. In addition to being a support group Chair in Saskatoon, he has served for six years as a Board member, produced a 20-minute cable TV video about Parkinson’s disease and exercise and a shorter version for the 3rd World Parkinson Congress video competition, placing in the top 35 of 118 submissions. His support group started a “Let’s Get Out” program, where the members book a room at a restaurant and “we all eat and shake together,” he jokes. He also introduced the “Stomp Line Dance” to the support group meetings, to help everyone stay alert.

Most recently, he is very proud of a  Parkinson’s support program only for caregivers. “Even I’m not able to attend,” he says. “I was getting requests from caregivers for such a program and there wasn’t one anywhere else in Saskatoon specifically for those dealing with Parkinson’s, so we created it.” Now in its second-year, he’s been thanked many times by grateful caregiver participants. Randy has also produced a short video called “What!! No Caregiver” for the next video competition for the 4th World Parkinson Congress being held in Portland, Oregon in 2016.

In the fundraising arena, Randy is an ardent campaigner. He has organized the community’s participation in the Saskatoon Exhibition Parade for four years and in 2011, he was the Honourary Chair of Parkinson SuperWalk. He was part of the marketing efforts for Saskatoon’s 2009 SuperWalk of the year, winning the honour in a year with 87 participating communities.

“That 2009 win was wonderful and lives on today,” he says. The SuperWalk committee of 2009 recently had a reunion celebration as part of the Parkinson SuperWalk 25th anniversary. Randy’s SuperWalk efforts have also had some funny moments.

When Randy was still working at Saskatoon City Hospital, 10 of his work colleagues surprised him at SuperWalk. They turned up to show their support, dressed as Randy did at work: in a lab coat, blue operating room cap, glasses, and his signature big, black handlebar moustache!

It was tough for them to decide how to outdo this effort the following year. In “The Great Moustache Shaveoff,” they raised $4,100 for Randy to shave off the moustache he’d had for 33 years. “I decided it would be worth it if this money could possibly fund the cure for this terrible disease,” Randy said.

Like Randy, Marc Pittet’s volunteer work is very personal and it began by helping out Parkinson Society Manitoba with fundraising. “Wayne Buchanan told me about the Society’s golf tournament and called me up to ask for my help. He knew my father Henri had Parkinson’s and that I was a supporter.” Three years later, Marc was leading the golf tournament committee and the team achieved incredible results, raising a total of $400,000 over several years. His personal fundraising efforts for Parkinson SuperWalk have also been outstanding, totaling more than $50,000 in 10 years.

Marc has now served on the Regional Advisory Board of Parkinson Society Manitoba for 12 years, the last 10 years as its volunteer Chair. He feels a great sense of accomplishment in the current financial health of the organization, which positions them to make a great difference for people living with Parkinson’s. “When I started with the Board, we were financially dependent on the national organization, now we are able to contribute to the national research, advocacy and education efforts.”

As Chair, Marc also works with other regional leaders from Parkinson Society partners across the country. “We work hard to provide consistent services and information to all Canadians,” he says. “We want everyone to know about Parkinson’s and to get the care and support they need if it strikes their family.”

Marc is proud of the reputation that Manitoba holds of being the most generous province in terms of charitable giving. “We truly support one another.” Maybe it’s the prairie tradition of helping out your neighbours, especially in tough times.

Both Randy and Marc are volunteers whose leadership exemplifies this caring spirit that is having a tremendous positive impact on the lives of thousands of Canadians every day.  We are grateful for their service and commitment.