Michael J. Fox Foundation awards WMed researcher $200,000 to study Parkinson’s disease

Hiru Kaku
Hiroaki Kaku, PhD

A research assistant professor in the medical school’s Department of Investigative Medicine has been awarded an 18-month, $200,000 grant from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research for his research project exploring the role of FAIM in Parkinson’s disease.

The project by Hiroaki Kaku, PhD, “The Role of FAIM in Parkinson’s disease,” builds on his decade of experience studying Fas Apoptosis Inhibitory Molecule (FAIM) functions in immune cells. Now, Dr. Kaku is studying neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

“In the process of studying FAIM function, I hypothesized that FAIM activity might be useful to prevent or treat neurodegenerative diseases,” Dr. Kaku said. “Because I thought FAIM’s activity is very important in the future aging world since neurodegenerative diseases are developed typically in people over 65 years old, I decided to change my field of study.”

FAIM protect cells from stress-induced death by preventing protein aggregation induced by cellular stress, Dr. Kaku said. Cells and tissues are continually exposed to cellular stress such as heat stress and oxidative stress, which causes cellular damages. Protein aggregates such as amyloid-beta and alpha-synuclein are major causes of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

“I hypothesized six years ago that FAIM might have a protective role in Parkinson’s disease, but had not had a chance to prove this hypothesis using samples from Parkinson’s disease patients due to a lack of any funding support,” Dr. Kaku said. “Now with funding from the Michael J. Fox Foundation I finally got the chance.”

Dr. Kaku started his initial work on the FAIM in 2007 in order to determine its unknown role in the immune system. In the process of the study, he discovered that FAIM protects cells from cellular stress by preventing protein aggregates/fibrils. More recently, he found that FAIM can prevent and reverse various protein aggregates including alpha-synuclein, which is the major hallmark of Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Kaku said his project will determine whether - or to what extent - FAIM affects Parkinson’s disease pathogenesis using human models, which may lead to new preventive and therapeutic options for Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.