Dr. Suneil Kalia: The long quest for a Parkinson’s cure

Dr Suneil Kalia
Dr Suneil Kalia

It was an article about the late Wilder Penfield, a neurosurgery pioneer, that sparked a young Suneil Kalia’s quest to become a neurosurgeon three decades ago. “I was fascinated by the fact that the patient was awake while the doctor was operating on the brain,” says Dr. Kalia.

It would take 20 years of post-secondary education and training to reach his goals of becoming a neurosurgeon, a molecular biologist and now also a neuroscientist conducting his own research into the mysteries of Parkinson’s disease. After earning a BSc from McGill, he then graduated from the MD/PhD program at the University of Toronto (U of T). His neurosurgical residency training included a one-year, post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University in the Mass General Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease (MIND). Today, Suneil Kalia is an assistant professor at U of T, a neuroscientist at Toronto Western Research Institute (TWRI) and a neurosurgeon at Toronto Western Hospital. He is also the recipient of a pilot project grant from Parkinson Society Canada’s National Research Program.

Dr. Kalia inspired hope among the audience who attended the special presentation on June 14th entitled: Parkinson’s disease – moving towards a cure. He gave context to the research and clinical work that has been done in the past, is currently underway and possible future innovations. Probably one of his most telling slides was a visual “map” indicating investigations into Parkinson’s that have been done during past decades. It was packed full with lines and touchpoints that gave the audience a glimpse into the complexities of Parkinson’s research.

On the surgical front Dr. Kalia spoke about deep brain stimulation (DBS) and of research into the development of smaller batteries, which may be placed under the scalp, rather than in the chest, or may even become part of the electrode which is inserted into the brain. And while current DBS therapy is “on” all the time, future iterations may self-adjust to brain stimuli and operate only as needed.

“And while we are able to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s with  current surgical and medical therapies, and make lifestyle  recommendations to improve the quality of life for our patients,  we are still not able to halt or slow the progression of the disease itself or reverse its effects,” said Dr. Kalia. It is in the field of molecular biology that he believes the route to a cure will be found.

His current research involves studying the causes of Parkinson’s disease – and in particular the proteins involved in the death of dopamine-producing brain cells.  Kalia is focused on so-called “chaperone” proteins, particularly one called BAG5. This protein 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.

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, Kalia believes. He thinks “bad” or malfunctioning chaperone proteins cause the alpha-synuclein to clump up in the brain cells. Knocking down these bad chaperone proteins might stop the aberrant process.

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.

Dr. Kalia’s research into BAG5 is funded by PSC’s National Research Program. “The seed money granted by Parkinson Society Canada is critical to our work,” he says. “There is no doubt that the limiting factor in our progress is funding for research. The PSC grants make a world of difference in getting us started and in helping us apply for other grants.”

Dr. Kalia’s partner in work and life is Lorraine Kalia, a neurologist in the Movement Disorder Centre at the Toronto Western Hospital. She is also an assistant professor at U of T and a neuroscientist at TWRI and Tanz Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases (CRND). Lorraine Kalia offered clinical perspectives during the question and answer portion of the presentation. With adjoining labs, and complementary clinical practices, the Kalias are among Canada’s elite group of Parkinson’s specialists, dedicated to offering the best of care while advancing the way to a cure for this life-changing disease.

“I look forward to the day when I can tell people living with Parkinson’s that we can halt the progression of the disease and perhaps one day even reverse its effects,” says Suneil Kalia.

Don’t miss Dr. Naomi Visanji’s webinar on August on August 18, 2015, from noon to 1 p.m. EDT. Click here and pre-register to attend.

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