Kwang-Soo Kim,
Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of Ottawa
Basic Research Fellowship: $100,000 over two years

Neurodegeneration, Parkinson’s disease, LRRK2, immune system

One of the most important targets for research into the causes of Parkinson’s disease is a gene called LRRK2, which is mutated in both familial and non-familial forms of the disease. Until now, though, researchers did not know the exact role LRRK2 played in causing this degenerative illness.

At the University of Ottawa, Kwang-Soo Kim, a post-doctoral fellow, is focusing his research on LRRK2’s relationship with another gene, WAVE2, and the protein it expresses. Kim, who came to Canada from South Korea to pursue this research, believes the interaction between these two genes explains why LRRK2 is so important to Parkinson’s.

WAVE2 helps to trigger the brain’s immune response to injury or illness. Normally, inflammation is a positive development, because in the short-term, it destroys damaged cells. When inflammation lasts too long, however, Kim and his colleagues believe it can kill otherwise healthy cells, including the brain cells that produce the dopamine that is critical to regulating movement.

Working with cultured cells and animal models, Kim is testing the theory that mutated forms of LRRK2 triggers WAVE2 to continue to produce an inflammatory response in the brain for far too long, killing dopamine-producing neurons and causing Parkinson’s. If Kim can prove that theory, he and his team might then be able to find a way to turn off the inflammatory process and save dopamine neurons.

“The hope would be that if it’s really the chronic inflammation that leads to the death of these neurons, if you curb the inflammation, you should prevent the further death of these neurons,” says Kim, speaking through a translator.

The role of inflammation and LRRK2 is also critical in other illnesses, including Crohn’s disease and leprosy – so Kim’s research could potentially help treat those diseases as well. Currently, Kim and his colleagues are testing a drug that has already been approved to treat osteoporosis. They hope this drug will be able to bypass LRRK2’s effects to inhibit WAVE2 and reduce or prevent chronic inflammation in the brain.

Kim, whose grandfather had Alzheimer’s disease, has always been interested in the immune system and its role in many neurodegenerative diseases. He enjoys being part of a system that can ultimately help people. Most of all, Kim is excited about the prospect that this project could eventually result in evidence for clinical trials involving a drug that could halt the progression of Parkinson’s disease.