VCU researchers receive $1 million grant to test a diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s disease

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The Michael J. Fox Foundation has awarded a $1 million grant to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Schools of Medicine and Engineering to test a diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s disease that was developed by university researchers.

The noninvasive eye-tracking device uses infrared light to follow a patient’s eye movement as the patient attempts to fix his or her gaze on a screen-displayed object. While normal eye movements are highly regulated and follow well-defined patterns, neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease alter eye movements.

“One aim of the grant is to validate that we can use eye tracking to diagnose Parkinson’s disease with high accuracy,” said principal investigator Mark Baron, M.D., professor of neurology at the VCU School of Medicine and interim director of the VCU Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Center. “Another aim is to validate that we can diagnose Parkinson’s disease well before a patient displays outward symptoms.”

Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder that affects as many as 1 million individuals in the United States. It involves the malfunction and death of vital nerve cells in the brain called neurons. Some of those dying neurons produce dopamine, which is a chemical that sends messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. As the cells die and less dopamine is produced in the brain, the symptoms of Parkinson’s progress, leaving a person unable to control movement normally.

The cause of the disease in most cases remains unknown and there is no cure, though research advances are providing increasing insight into the underlying disorder. To date, Parkinson’s disease has lacked a standard diagnostic test.

“The ability to more accurately diagnose Parkinson’s disease, as well as other movement conditions, at an early stage would importantly reduce the occurrence of early misdiagnosis and assure initiation of the correct disease-targeted therapies,” Baron said.

Baron and his research partner Paul Wetzel, Ph.D., an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the VCU School of Engineering, have been studying eye movements associated with Parkinson’s disease for more than a decade. They were joined by George Gitchel, Ph.D., who worked on the eye movement research full time for his Ph.D. dissertation at the VCU School of Engineering under the mentorship of Wetzel. Gitchel continues to work in the trio of researchers in his current position as the associate director of clinical research at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Hospital Southeast Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education and Clinical Center.

“With the Michael J. Fox Foundation grant, we will replicate the research we have been doing for the past eight years in a blinded fashion over multiple academic centers in order to prove the utility of the device and lend support toward anticipated Food and Drug Administration approval,” Gitchel said.

The research team already has a commercial license for the device, which was facilitated through the VCU Innovation Gateway. Baron expects the product to be commercially available within a year.