McCamish Blue Sky Grants Take Aim at Parkinson’s Disease

The new McCamish Parkinson’s Disease Innovation Program has awarded its first round of “Blue Sky” grants to eight research teams taking a multi-disciplinary approach to studying this so-far incurable brain disorder.

“These grants are specifically focused on technology-driven research for understanding, treating, and curing Parkinson’s disease,” said Garrett Stanley, professor and founding director of the McCamish program in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University.

‘Blue Sky’ is exactly what the name implies, Stanley added: “It means we’re aiming high; we’re going for it. We’re trying to do something new and innovative.”

This first annual round of grants is broken into two different categories: five awards of $40,000 for earlier-stage research, and three larger awards of $125,000.

The smaller awards, Stanley explained, “are like seed grants — even if it’s just a great idea at this point, we want to help get this research off the ground. The other awards are to help teams that are farther along. Our goal is to help get those teams to the next level, to go after resources from the NIH or NSF or other foundations, or to pursue commercialization.”

The wide-ranging eight projects, all involving researchers from Georgia Tech and Emory University, run the gamut from basic science to what Stanley calls, “practical, quality-of-life technologies.”

“These grants are specifically focused on technology-driven research for understanding, treating, and curing Parkinson’s disease. … We’re aiming high; we’re going for it. We’re trying to do something new and innovative.”

– Garrett Stanley, professor and director, McCamish Parkinson’s Disease Innovation Program

One group is working on deep brain stimulation methods to treat motor symptoms. Two groups are focusing on freezing of gait (FOG), a symptom of Parkinson’s – one using computer vision to measure FOG, another using spinal cord stimulation to treat it. And another team is trying to better understand the erratic, involuntary movements many 80-90 percent of Parkinson’s patients experience as a side effect of L-DOPA, the most common treatment for the disease.

Principal investigator Ellen Hess, professor of pharmacology and chemistry in Emory’s School of Medicine, is collaborating with BME Assistant Professor Chethan Pandarinath on idenfitying the neuron activity related to L-DOPA-induced-dyskinesias, or LID.

“After we identify the abnormal firing patterns, we hope to use that information to lead us to therapeutics that nudge the firing patterns back to normal to alleviate the LIDS while still allowing patients to experience the beneficial effects of L-DOPA,” said Hess, whose team will use a deep learning method developed by Pandrarinath’s lab. “It is a unique system and really the only way that we could accomplish our goals,” she added.

Other teams are developing algorithms to optimize electrical brain stimulation and medication dosages, biofeedback devices to help Parkinson’s patients better communicate through vocal therapy, and wearable technology to continuously monitor patients’ cardiac activity and blood pressure.

And sometimes the research involves reapplying an established technology to a slightly different task. For example, the project being led by Cassie Mitchell will build on her lab’s successful text mining platform for identifying repurposed drugs for Covid-19.

“We’ll use predictive medicine techniques with machine learning, network pathology dynamics, and large-scale text mining of millions of journal articles,” said Mitchell, whose team received a $40,000 award.

Her goal is to personalize and optimize diagnostic and treatment protocols. Mitchell and her co-investigators will build a data network and text mining foundation for making prioritized predictions for Parkinson’s and Parkinson’s-like disorders.

“Future projects based on this work will deliver clinically translational diagnostic algorithms, repurposed drugs or new therapeutic targets, and new personalized treatment recommendation systems,” said Mitchell, whose lab has specialized in predictive medicine for multi-factorial neurological disease in the past. “We’re excited and grateful to expand our work to Parkinson’s and Parkinsonian disorders.”