Tim Tai, Senior Photographer

The School of Medicine announced its establishment of the Stephen and Denise Adams Center for Parkinson’s Disease Research, which seeks to change the way that physicians diagnose and treat Parkinson’s. 

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that causes motor and cognitive decline. In the United States, over one million people live with Parkinson’s. Although scientists suspect that the disease derives from both genetic and environmental factors, its causes are not fully known. 

Current treatment for Parkinson’s usually involves waiting for neurologic disease to progress until debilitating symptoms develop, then giving symptom-oriented medications focused on reactive rather than proactive care. Existing therapies generally do not target the underlying causes of the disease. 

To make Parkinson’s treatment more proactive, the new center aims to identify and target specific disease drivers with the goal of predicting and preventing the disease in the first place. 

“It has the potential to become a home base and a ‘moving force’ for research, and that’s something that is new for Parkinson’s disease research at Yale,” said David Matuskey, a professor of radiology and biomedical imaging. “My hope is that it really becomes the centerpiece of Parkinson’s research all across Yale, including genetics, basic science, clinical research, neuroimaging and other modalities to tie them together.”

The Center will be led by Clemens Scherzer, a neurology professor and the current director of the Center for Advanced Parkinson’s Research at Harvard. In 2024, Scherzer will arrive on Yale’s campus and become academic chief for the Division of Movement Disorders in the Department of Neurology. 

Dennis Selkoe, a professor of neurologic disease at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, emphasized that Scherzer’s previous work experience will help spur future research. 

“Yale is fortunate to have recruited Clemens Scherzer, a world leader in basic and translational science of Parkinson’s disease,” Selkoe said. “[The Center] will help identify targeted therapeutics aimed at precision medicine for this common and difficult neurodegenerative disorder, which currently lacks disease-modifying drugs. This is an approach that Dr. Scherzer has excelled heretofore.”

For Scherzer, this new center is a trailblazing initiative to invent the healthcare of the future for Parkinson’s through precision neurology. His mission is to have a tangible impact on people with Parkinson’s disease.

To make this vision a reality, Scherzer wrote to the News that the Center’s researchers hope to “identify the genetic variants driving Parkinson’s disease onset and progression, and reveal the mechanisms through which genetics and environment cause disease in target cells.” 

Scherzer’s goal aligns with the idea of personalized medicine, a medical model in which physicians treat the specific patient rather than the disease. In this framework, physicians recognize that diseases manifest themselves differently in different people.

Research designed for personalized medicine will help physicians get in front of Parkinson’s diagnosis and treatment, according to Scherzer.

“We want to get new medicines that are tailored to patients,” Scherzer said. “Some of these are going to directly stop or slow disease progression, and some are directed to pathways that lead to complications, such as hallucination or cognitive function.”

According to Scherzer, the center has three broad platform goals. The first is to create a ‘human/cell atlas’ of Parkinson’s disease by compiling millions of brain cells to map the integrated circuits of human brains affected by the disease. This will involve mapping brain cells in a process called spatial genomics and could help with the identification of cell targets for slowing, curing or preventing the disease. 

Second, the Center will design predictive algorithms using big data and artificial intelligence to help identify genes and cells that could be targets for treatments, taking into account genetic variance and population health in terms of genomics. The Center’s third platform seeks to research and develop tailored RNA medicines to correct the glitches in genetic code identified during the Parkinon’s brain cell or gene identification journey.

Researchers will pursue these goals across six hubs. While four of the hubs will primarily focus on research — specifically, human brain cell research, computational neuroscience and AI — the other two hubs are designed for patient care in clinics alongside training and educational outreach, respectively.

For Sreeganga Chandra, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at the School of Medicine, this combination of research and clinical practice is especially exciting. 

“This will make us a major center of Parkinson’s research, which we haven’t been historically, so this is a good move,” Chandra said. “There will be a lot of synergies both clinically and research-wise.”

In an email to the News, Mel B. Feany, a professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, expressed optimism about the Center’s future. 

“The new center will add critical clinical diagnostic and research capabilities to the thriving Parkinson’s research already underway at Yale,” she told the News. “The combination promises to engage patients as partners in Parkinson’s disease research in the short term and bring innovative new therapies to the broad community of Parkinson’s patients in the long term.”

The Parkinson’s Disease Research Center will be located at 101 College St., with doors opening in 2025.