I believe there are two components that will lead to a Parkinson’s cure: 1) rich and/or famous people impacted by Parkinson’s, and 2) smart, creative researchers that can effectively use the money the rich folks raise. I wrote an earlier post about the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan funded by one of those rich folks, Jay Van Andel, co-founder of Amway, who died from Parkinson’s complications in 2004. This post is about component #2, the smart researcher, in this case, Patrik Brundin who is director of Parkinson’s research at Van Andel Institute. I was able to interview him on October 2 at the World Parkinson’s Conference, where he made three presentations on stem cell research. (Thanks to Van Andel board member (and my cousin), John Kennedy, for facilitating the interview.)
Dr. Brundin juggles multiple roles. He is still a professor of neuroscience at Lund University in his native Sweden. Starting in 2012, he became the Director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Science at the Van Andel Institute and the inaugural holder of the Jay Van Andel Endowed Chair in Parkinson Research. Currently, he’s also acting as interim executive director as that position is being recruited. He’s leading research teams in both Sweden and Grand Rapids. Somehow he fits in being Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Parkinson’s Disease. And oh yes, he is the father of four children, ranging from 7 months to 7 years. He and his wife (also working outside the home) are grateful for a nanny, video conferencing, and a “good support network”. “Someone else mows the lawn,” Dr. Brundin grins.
I asked how he was recruited from Sweden to Grand Rapids. Dr. Brundin laughed, admitting he had never heard of Grand Rapids, when he was first approached in 2010 at the 2nd World Parkinson’s Congress in Glasgow. His first glimpse of Grand Rapids….in November….on a Sunday night….didn’t make him very enthusiastic. But then he met Dave Van Andel, the CEO of the institute and Jay Van Andel’s son. The two bonded after discovering that both their fathers had died of Parkinson’s complications, and both fathers had been born in 1924. Brundin also had the rare opportunity of a blank slate, since the Parkinson’s research component of Van Andel was just starting up. I asked if this blank slate was exciting or scary? He smiled and said “A little bit of both.”
I asked how he prioritized research to work on…how does he bet on “winners”? Interestingly, I was thinking research topics, and he immediately thought of people. He said “people are the key” to research breakthroughs. Fortunately, there is a high quality of PD researchers and a lot of interest: Dr Brundin reported getting 62 applicants for two research positions. On his wishlist? A “worm guy”. He’s referring to someone with expertise in a new animal model of…yes, worms with Parkinson’s. If you consider the life span of a worm vs a monkey or even a mouse, this will greatly accelerate research. Look for a future posting about animal models.
With sequestration and NIH funding cuts looming over Parkinson’s research, I asked if Dr. Brundin thought a cure was possible without public funding. I think he found this question as astonishing as if I’d asked if a highway system was possible without public funding. He noted that the public cost of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s was “unfathomable” as the affected population grew, so public funding for brain research is a “good public investment”. He noted that “I come from Europe with a lot of [public] investment; [the attitude] is a lot different here.”