Growing a scientist

Dr. Jean-François Trempe and his wife Véronique Sauvé in earlier days in Oxford. Both were lead authors on a significant paper on Parkinson’s disease research, published in Science in 2013.
Dr. Jean-François Trempe and his wife Véronique Sauvé in earlier days in Oxford. Both were lead authors on a significant paper on Parkinson’s disease research, published in Science in 2013.

For Dr. Jean-François Trempe, building a research career is a life-long passion and a family affair. With funding from Parkinson Society Canada National Research Program, Dr. Trempe, 37, along with his wife Véronique Sauvé, were the lead authors on a significant paper related to Parkinson’s disease published in Science in 2013.

The two McGill researchers, collaborating with teams directed by Dr. Edward (Ted) Fon and Dr. Kalle Gehring, unlocked a new door to developing drugs to slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. The paper described the three-dimensional structure of the protein Parkin. Mutations in Parkin cause a rare hereditary form of Parkinson’s disease and are likely to also be involved in more commonly occurring forms of Parkinson’s disease. The Parkin protein protects neurons from cell death due to an accumulation of defective mitochondria. Mitochondria are the batteries in cells, providing the power for cell functions. This new knowledge of Parkin’s structure has allowed the scientists to design mutations in Parkin that make it better at recognizing damaged mitochondria and therefore possibly provide better protection for nerve cells.

When the work on the Parkin structure was underway, Dr. Trempe was a post-doctoral fellow funded by the PSC National Research Program. “In the same way that a picture is worth 1,000 words; a structure is like 1,000 experiments,” says Dr. Trempe explaining the significance of the Parkin structure discovery.

Dr. Edward Fon, Chair of PSC’s Scientific Advisory Board and Director, McGill Parkinson Program, first met Dr. Trempe when he was working in Dr. Gehring’s lab. “What struck me was how J-F (Jean- François) stepped right up and took responsibility for this collaborative Parkin project,” he says. “He’s also unique in that he’s not limited by his own field of structural biology, but is able to add other dimensions, such as cell biology, to complement his background and harness both areas to take research into new directions.”

The publication in Science has been a turning point in the career of this promising young researcher, and one of the most significant discoveries to come out of a Parkinson Society Canada National Research Program funded project. Recently, Trempe has been invited to present his work to Parkinson researchers and drug developers at international conferences. “These were great opportunities to exchange ideas and discuss our work with other researchers in the Parkinson’s field.

And last year, Trempe established his own lab at McGill University, employing two graduate students, one post-doctoral fellow and a research technician. Undergraduates also work and study in the lab as part of their training. Trempe received a New Investigator award of $90,000 over two years, through PSC’s National Research Program. This support meant he could hire the post-doctoral fellow in his lab.

Currently Dr. Trempe’s team is studying the structure and shape of PINK1, a protein that plays a critical role in familial Parkinson’s disease. About 10 per cent of people with Parkinson’s have a genetic form of the disease. Learning the shape of this protein could help develop a drug to repair the protein when it is damaged, to help it do its job of keeping brain cells healthy.

“PINK1 activates Parkin,” explains Trempe. “Once we have the structure for PINK1, I’d like to build on our work on PINK1 and Parkin towards drug development.”

How does a young scientist get to the point of ground-breaking discoveries? For Trempe there was an early interest in science, followed by undergraduate and graduate degrees in biochemistry. From 2002 to 2007, he studied at Oxford in the United Kingdom, under renowned researchers Dr. Jane Endicott and Dr. Iain Campbell – who pioneered the use of NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) to determine protein structures.

“It was an inspiring and a very collegial place to study and work,” says Trempe, “with everyone sharing information.”

He found a similar spirit of collaboration, when he returned to Canada and worked with Drs. Gehring and Fon at McGill. “They are both very open to collaboration and work to expand our knowledge of Parkinson’s and to help their patients,” Trempe said. In turn, Dr. Fon found Trempe had a “true passion for science. He is enthralled by figuring out how things work.”

Why Parkinson’s research? “It’s still such a medical mystery. We still don’t know why some people get it. We still don’t know the cause, or causes. For me, there is the curiosity, to find the answers to those questions. And of course Parkinson’s is a huge and growing burden, for the people living with it, and as a pressing health issue for society,” Trempe says.

Since he began his research on Parkinson’s, Trempe has had more exposure to people living with the disease, through Dr. Fon, who regularly talked about cases and at Parkinson Society events. “Listening to patients is something of a reality check and helps motivate you in your work. You realize the potential impact your research may have,” says Trempe.

Working with Dr. Fon also helped Trempe recognize that not all people with Parkinson’s are the same; that there is a wide spectrum of the disorder with seemingly various sub-types and categories. “We need more data on individuals, and it’s difficult to accomplish this with limited resources.”

In addition to a commitment to scientific rigour, working with Dr. Fon taught Trempe the importance of good communication skills. “It’s not enough to acquire the knowledge, you need to share it with others, in excellent papers and presentations,” Trempe says.

And the funding process today demands both scientific rigour and communication skills. “Not only do you need to publish great papers and write funding proposals, you need to explain the impact of your research – for further research and towards the ultimate goals of better treatments and a cure.”

It’s all about building a reputation for excellence. Trempe acknowledges that earlier funding from PSC’s National Research Program has helped him develop this reputation. Discovering the structure of Parkin helped him acquire further financial assistance to keep trying to unlock the mysteries of Parkinson’s. He has since received funding from McGill to establish his own lab and was awarded the Canada Research Chair in Structural Pharmacology, worth $100,000 over five years. He’s cautiously optimistic about a funding application to the CIHR for a “substantial” sum. And, he has received the latest funding from PSC for the PINK1 project.

“The funding from the Parkinson Society Canada has been essential,” says Trempe. “Not only have we made great strides in our knowledge, but we are developing young scientists and other funders recognize the potential of our endeavours.”

Dr. Fon, who chairs PSC’s Scientific Advisory Board, says one of the research program’s goals is to draw people into the field of Parkinson’s research. “Our fellowships, pilot project grants and other awards, can be critical in attracting scientists like J-F to apply their talents to Parkinson’s.”

“I see my work expanding beyond structural studies to biophysical studies and drug development, as well as continuing with basic science,” says Trempe. “We still need to pursue the basics to understand various phenomena.”

“And our progress is accelerating,” explains Trempe. “I believe we are on the right track and that advances will continue to be made.”

To learn more about Dr. Jean- François Trempe’s current project funded by Parkinson Society Canada National Research Program, visit online

You can help us continue to support researchers like Dr. Trempe, by making a donation today to Parkinson Society Canada and its National Research Program.