Our research projects

For over 50 years, Parkinson's UK has been driving forwards research towards better treatments. But we know we need to do more. Together, we'll find a cure.

Across the UK and beyond, world-leading researchers are making new discoveries every day - unraveling the mysteries of Parkinson’s that will underpin the treatments of tomorrow. Discover all our active projects.

Research we have funded has delivered groundbreaking discoveries, new treatments and better care. Today, we continue to back the best and brightest minds to unlock the ideas that will lead to new treatments, and one day a cure.

Driven by people with Parkinson's

At Parkinson's UK, we are led by those affected by Parkinson's and work in partnership with the whole Parkinson's community. Through our pioneering involvement initiatives and with the support of countless research volunteers, we are making progress, together.

We carry out a rigorous evaluation process, involving volunteer reviewers affected by Parkinson's. This means that every research project we fund is high-quality science and meets the needs of those with the condition.

Discover more about becoming a research volunteer and find out how you can shape research.

Download the latest list of all our active research projects (PDF, 2.3MB).

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Read about some of our projects

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Why do stem cells hold potential for Parkinson's?

Stem cells are 'unspecialised' cells which can develop into almost any cell in the body. They are found in early embryos, foetuses, umbilical cords and also in some adult tissues. 

What makes them so exciting for Parkinson's research is that they have the potential to grow into new nerve cells that could be used to replace those lost in the Parkinson's brain.

Stem cells treatments for Parkinson's still need to be thoroughly tested and proven to be safe and effective. And, today, clinical trials are in progress.

Our animation explains what stem cells are and how we may be able to grow new dopamine-producing cells to treat Parkinson's if we can harness their power.

Challenges for stem cell research

We've invested millions in cutting-edge stem cell research, which has advanced our understanding of how stem cells could be used to treat Parkinson's directly, and also as a tool for testing and developing other new treatments.

In the early 1990s, we helped fund early cell transplantation trials in a small group of people with Parkinson’s. Overall, the results were inconsistent but some people experienced significant improvements that have helped lead to the transplantation trials underway today.

Using stem cells to treat Parkinson's is a realistic possibility. But there are a number of key challenges we still we need to tackle first: 

  • How to grow large quantities of dopamine-producing nerve cells.
  • How to make sure new nerve cells survive.
  • How to get transplanted cells to connect and work normally inside the brain.
  • How to control newly transplanted cells to prevent tumours forming.

Using stem cells to improve non-motor symptoms

Dr Mariah Lelos is a research fellow at the University of Cardiff. Her research project is investigating how stem cells could be used to improve the non-motor symptoms of Parkinson's.

Watch our short video to find out more about how stems cells could help to control Parkinson's symptoms.

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Today treatments for Parkinson's cannot slow the progression of the condition, and it can be hard to find the right treatment for different people. 

If we can understand how and why people with Parkinson’s differ, we can start to sort out which people will benefit from different treatments and therapies. This has the potential not only to transform the way we care for people with the condition now but also how we develop and test future treatments.

With a complex condition like Parkinson’s, this means you need a huge amount of carefully collected data. And that’s exactly what we’re gathering through 2 major studies which are both closely monitoring people who have recently been diagnosed and collecting information about every aspect of the condition as it develops over time.

Tracking Parkinson’s

The ambitious Tracking Parkinson's study launched in early 2012 with the aim of studying how people with the condition differ in their symptoms, respond to drug therapies and progress over time. Ultimately, understanding these differences will help us develop better and more targeted treatments that we can use in particular types of Parkinson’s.

Oxford Parkinson’s Disease Centre 

The Oxford Parkinson’s Disease Centre is a unique, collaborative initiative that brings together the best scientific minds to speed up the search for better treatments and a cure. The researchers are looking at Parkinson’s from every angle – including studying stem cells and animal models of the condition – to attempt to answer some of the biggest questions facing the field.

Discover what we know about the different subtypes of Parkinson's so far.

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Many people with Parkinson’s notice changes in their digestion, which can impact on quality of life as well as the effectiveness of medications that people rely on.

Now there is mounting evidence that some of the earliest changes that lead to Parkinson’s may actually start in the gut.

How is the gut involved in Parkinson’s?

Changes in the alpha synuclein, a protein linked to the progression of Parkinson’s, may start in the gut and travel up the vagus nerve to the brain.

A number of Parkinson's UK projects are helping to answer important questions, such as which bacteria are good, and investigating if a simple probiotic may help reduce Parkinson's symptoms. 

Discover more:

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Alpha-synuclein is a protein that was first linked to Parkinson’s 20 years ago. When Parkinson's develops, alpha-synuclein forms sticky clumps in the brain known as Lewy Bodies. These sticky clumps spread through the brain stopping it from functioning fully. This brings on the symptoms of Parkinson's, including freezing and shaking.

Discover more about Lewy bodies.

Finding drugs that combat alpha-synuclein

Professor Maria Grazia Spillantini's research will test a new compound, called Anle138b, to see if it can affect alpha-synuclein and in turn reduce Parkinson’s symptoms. She’s already successfully found a way to make Anle138b more effective at targeting these types of proteins.

If the research finds that this compound is effective against alpha-synuclein, this could lead to further testing and clinical trials to explore if it is safe to use in people, and if it will help Parkinson's symptoms. And if the trials go well, it could potentially be used as a new Parkinson's treatment.

Discover more by watching this video of Maria Grazia explaining her research. 

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Although it is very rare for people with Parkinson's to have a directly inherited form of the condition, research has uncovered a number of subtle genetic changes that slightly increase a person's risk.

Understanding how genetic changes affect the way cells work, and potentially contribute to the development of Parkinson's, could give us the vital insight needed to develop new and better treatments.  That's why we're funding a variety of genetic research projects.

You can read more about the genetics of Parkinson's on our blog.

Targeting GBA in Parkinson’s

Changes in the GBA gene are an important risk factor for Parkinson’s and can significantly increase the risk of developing Parkinson's. Previous research has shown that these mutations lead to alpha-synuclein building up in brain cells. He also discovered that a drug called ambroxol may be able to help.

Now, Professor Anthony Schapira and his team at UCL plan to investigate whether ambroxol can slow the spread of the alpha synuclein protein in a mouse model of the condition. This information could help researchers design future clinical trials.

A blood test to measure LRRK2

Changes in the LRRK2 gene are one of the most common genetic risk factors for Parkinson's and can change the way cells behave.

Dr Esther Sammler of the University of Dundee hopes that a simple blood test may be able to directly measure the activity of the LRRK2 pathway in blood samples from those with Parkinson's. Demonstrating that the test works could aid future research to test new treatments that target this pathway.

Understanding and predicting Parkinson’s progression

Professor Huw Morris, of University College London, is interested in finding out how people’s genetic makeup may influence the progression of Parkinson's. His team will combine clinical and genetic data from several large research studies to create the largest dataset of Parkinson's progression to date.

They also aim to predict progression on an individual level, using both clinical and genetic factors.

Read more about how predicting Parkinson's could lead to new and better treatments for all.

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In 1989, Parkinson's UK funded research demonstrated that in the brain region affected by Parkinson's, the batteries of the cells - called mitochondria - were malfunctioning. Since then, researchers have been interested in understanding how changes in mitochondria affect energy production and contribute to brain cell death.

Today, Parkinson's UK continues to fund research that aims to turn this understanding into treatments that slow or stop the condition.

Could boosting the brain's batteries slow down Parkinson's?

Just like regular batteries, mitochondria wear out and when they do, they need to be recycled and replaced with healthy mitochondria. A protein called parkin plays a key role in this process, labelling which mitochondria should be disposed of. In some people with Parkinson’s, parkin doesn’t work properly. This means the worn-out mitochondria hang around too long and damage the essential dopamine-producing cells. 

Professor Sylvie Urbé and Professor Michael Clague have identified a family of over 600 proteins that may be able to stand in for parkin. In this project, the team will be investigating which of these proteins could play a vital role in recycling and replacing mitochondria and boosting it into action. Protecting the precious dopamine-producing brain cells. 

Discover more by watching this video of Sylvie explaining her research.

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The Brain Bank, based at Imperial College London, collects precious tissue from people with and without Parkinson's who have decided to leave their brains to Parkinson's research.

The donation of brain tissue has already led to major advances in our understanding of Parkinson's, and resulted in new treatments being developed and tested.

Discover more about the brain bank and brain donation.

A radical approach to speed up research

We're committed to accelerating research to deliver groundbreaking new treatments. Our pioneering initiatives are tackling the critical roadblocks, and investing in big ideas that will speed up the process and deliver treatments to the people who need them, faster. But we can't do this without you.