Research Project

Development of an in-vitro model for Parkinson's disease

Principal Investigator
Dr Benjamin Skinner

Novel techniques to reveal the cause of Parkinson’s disease

The number of cases of Parkinson’s disease has more than doubled in the last 15 years and this cannot fully be attributed to an increase in life expectancy.

We know that Parkinson’s ultimately leads to the death of dopamine-producing cells in the base of the brain. However, the specific causes, be they environmental or behavioural, are still not fully understood. This in turn causes difficulties in developing effective treatments or even cures.

At the moment, research into Parkinson’s disease can be very expensive and time consuming. Such research is dependent on animal testing and, for projects that go beyond that stage, human testing as well, which have significant legal and ethical considerations.

This interdisciplinary research project aims to aid research into Parkinson’s disease without relying on living creatures, by developing a new in-vitro platform to investigate Parkinson’s disease and potentially other neurodegenerative disorders.

Our aim is to demonstrate the use of a ‘brain-on-a-chip’ platform as a useful model to study Parkinson’s. We will culture existing human neuronal cell lines in an organ-on-a-chip platform. These novel culture systems allow the study of cells in an environment that is closer to a ‘real’ body than conventional cell culture.

The cells will be treated with chemicals, such as MPTP, that are known to cause Parkinson’s disease. We will use microscopy, and measurements of gene activity to compare the cells in the chip to their known behaviour in Parkinson’s sufferers. Our team brings together multiple areas of expertise to aid analysis of the data this will generate.

If successful, then this platform could be taken forward to examine the effects of other environmental pollutants on the development of Parkinson’s and the efficacy of potential treatments. There is even potential for the platform to be applicable to other public health issues, especially where multiple organ systems interact – e.g. infectious diseases, gut/brain interactions, and mental illness.

Funding and partners

This project is funded by the University of Essex and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and is run in partnership with Public Health England, the Quadram Institute, and the University of Hull.