On the fourth floor of Wichita State University's McKinley Hall, biochemistry professor Kandatege Wimalasena and his group of doctoral and undergraduate students are hard at work researching Parkinson's disease (PD) – the second-most common neurodegenerative disease, affecting 1 to 2 percent of people older than 60.
Wimalasena, a native of Sri Lanka, has spent the past several years focusing his research on PD, hoping to help identify a way to target the underlying causes of the disease.
Wimalasena believes his studies will identify molecular causes and eventually lead to the development of effective preventive and therapeutic strategies for Parkinson's.
With more than 50,000 new cases diagnosed in the United States each year, Wimalasena believes that ongoing Parkinson's research is vital.
Parkinson's is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. The motor symptoms of PD result from the death of dopamine-generating cells in the substantia nigra, a region of the midbrain. The cause of this cell death is unknown.
Although L-Dopa is currently used to improve PD symptoms, there is no drug on the market that helps the causes of Parkinson's.
Wimalasena said the prevention of cell death is essential to protecting the aging population from PD. That's why the cause of the specific degeneration has been such a strong focus.
"Although considerable advances have been made, a comprehensive integration of the various risk factors has not been successful," he said.
Wimalasena said the most commonly accepted view is that the exposure to environmental factors and toxins, together with cumulative defects in protective mechanisms, may be the cause of Parkinson's. Although many examples of environmental factors have been identified, there is one toxic molecule – referred to as MPP+ - that has garnered the most attention from researchers, including Wimalasena and his students.
"Since the MPP+ model is the current gold standard for PD research and pharmacological therapeutics development, a proper understanding of its mechanism of specific toxicity to dopamine cells is of prime importance," he said.
In the past several years, Wimalasena's lab has gathered strong evidence to contradict the proposed mechanism for MPP+ toxicity. His lab is in the process of collecting the data to formulate a previously unknown mechanism.
One of the things Wimalasena has discovered in his lab is a group of commonly used industrial chemicals with structures similar to MPP+ that are about 1,000 times more toxic.
The comparative studies of these toxins will not only allow them to further understand the causes of neuro-degeneration, but also to identify the characteristics of environmental toxins that are responsible for Parkinson's and other neuro-degenerative diseases.
Wimalasena's lab has also discovered two different sets of compounds that protect dopamine cells affected by MPP+ toxicity. He believes these compounds could be further developed to treat and/or to prevent Parkinson's.
"Having had the opportunity to work in research as an undergraduate and a graduate student, the experiences were very valuable," Le said. "It has allowed me to develop my critical thinking skills and learn many different lab techniques. I was able to apply what I learned in the research lab and classrooms to the labs that I taught for 10 semesters and in real-life situations."
Le has won numerous student teaching and research awards, and he credits working with Wimalasena for that success.
"Dr. Wimalasena has given me endless amount of support on my research projects," Le said. "He has helped me at every stage, from discussing what I need to take my research projects to the next step, to presenting my results. I believe that he, and my lab mates, are the most significant people in influencing the success of my Ph.D. All of those will help on my resume when I graduate."