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A collaborative research team led by the Oxford Parkinson’s Disease Centre (OPDC) has been awarded a £3.8 million Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award to study the function of calcium in dopamine neurons, and how this is plays a role in Parkinson’s. Their research will help explain how and why dopamine neurons are vulnerable in the disease and look at how they may be preserved.

Professor Stephanie Cragg (top left), Professor Peter Magill (bottom left), Professor Richard Wade-Martins (centre). Research: Tracking calcium signalling (in green) in human dopamine neurons grown from stem cells in the laboratory.

Researchers at the Oxford Parkinson’s Disease Centre led by Professor Richard Wade-Martins with Professor Stephanie Cragg and Professor Peter Magill, have been awarded a £3.8 million Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award in Science to study the critical role of calcium in the biology of dopamine neurons. 

They are joined by Professor Birgit Liss from the University of Ulm in Germany, and Professor Josef Kittler from University College London, to create new an international team of scientists to provide new and detailed information about how dopamine-producing nerve cells operate in health and in Parkinson’s.

In order to develop improved therapies for Parkinson’s, we need to better understand why certain types of neurons become impaired and die. Nerve cells producing the chemical dopamine are essential for many behaviours, and are particularly vulnerable in Parkinson’s disease, but we do not know exactly why. However, OPDC researchers believe the ways these cells deal with calcium is a vital piece of the Parkinson’s puzzle.

The team will work with human stem cell-derived dopamine neurons in a laboratory dish, and in models of the whole brain, to study different ‘compartments’ along the complete length of these nerve cells. They aim to reveal how calcium enters cells and is handled to generate electrical and chemical signals, and how these and other processes linked to calcium go awry in Parkinson’s. Their multidisciplinary and collaborative approach will reveal more about why these nerve cells are vulnerable and how we might be able to stop them dying.

Lead researcher and OPDC Director Professor Richard Wade-Martins said: “I am delighted to establish a new national and international collaboration and bring a team of scientists together to investigate the critical role of calcium in Parkinson’s. Calcium biology is so important to how a neuron functions, how it lives and how it dies, and may hold the key to preventing cell death. Our team is very well-placed to develop novel insights and I look forward to starting this exciting work.”

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