Dr. David Park, PhD

Professor and Assistant Dean of Research Department of Cellular Molecular Medicine, University of Ottawa / Co-director, Parkinson’s Research Consortium Affiliate Investigator, Neuroscience, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
Researcher of the month: 
Nov 2012

Parkinson’s disease and cell suicide

Parkinson's disease is the most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer's, affecting at least 100,000 Canadians with the number of cases expected to double by the year 2050. The symptoms vary from person to person, but can be devastating, and most frequently include uncontrollable shaking, deformed posture and, at more advanced stages, dementia.

While the ultimate cause of Parkinson's disease is currently unknown, symptoms are mainly thought to result from the death of brain cells that produce a chemical called dopamine – through a process called neuronal apoptosis, the brain’s cells essentially begin to commit suicide.

“But what triggers a neuron to commit suicide and how can we prevent it?” asks Dr. David Park, Professor and Assistant Dean of Research with the University of Ottawa’s Department of Cellular & Molecular Medicine and co-director of the Ottawa based Parkinson’s Research Consortium.

“These are questions that ultimately inspired me to abandon my parents’ dream that I become a physician so that I could pursue a career as a research scientist,” explains Dr. Park. “As an aspiring molecular biologist, I was fascinated by the mysterious factors that cause cells to die in this bizarre, programmed manner.”

Understanding death, understanding life

Far from being discouraged by these unknowns, Dr. Park has turned his curiosity into an acclaimed and dynamic research program examining neuronal dysfunction and death, particularly in the context of Parkinson’s disease and stroke. He is actively pursuing the mechanisms affected by known Parkinson’s genes such as DJ-1, Parkins, Pink1 and LRRRK2, and is also interested in understanding how cyclin dependent kinases may regulate death in the context of Parkinson's disease and stroke.

The goal of Dr. Park’s research is to understand the control pathways which regulate apoptosis. In doing, so, he hopes to not only gain an appreciation for an important biological process, but also to develop therapeutic strategies to treat neuronal diseases.

“If you can understand death, you can better understand life,” he says, “The complexity of cell death is what appeals to me. It’s a tremendous challenge to get our understanding around this complexity, but the fruit of our labours will be knowing we have helped heal or at least treat some terrible diseases.”

Born in Korea and raised in the United States, Dr. Park received his PhD from Rutgers University and obtained his post-doctoral training with Dr. Lloyd Greene at Columbia University in New York. He has been in Ottawa for over 10 years and is currently Full Professor in the Department of Cellular Molecular Medicine at the University of Ottawa.

He is the Co-director of the Parkinson’s Research Consortium and a Heart and Stroke Career investigator. He also serves on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Parkinson’s Society Canada and has served on editorial boards for J. Biol Chem., and J. Neurochem. Over the years, he has received grants from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Parkinson’s disease Foundation U.S.A., and many other agencies.

A consortium of ideas

Dr. Park has dedicated a significant amount of his creativity and career to understanding why Parkinson’s causes the brain’s neurons to die. In 2004, he co-founded the Parkinson’s Research Consortium (PRC) to bring together scientists with the common goals of understanding how and why these brain cells die, and applying this knowledge to the treatment of those with the condition.

“There are presently no proven treatments available that can slow the relentless progression of this disease,” explains Dr. Park. “Only through a better understanding of the basic mechanisms that cause it can effective disease-altering treatments be developed.”

The PRC is composed of a select group of scientists from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) and the University of Ottawa with diverse scientific talents and expertise in genetics, molecular biology, neuroscience and patient care. Our overall vision is to bring together a comprehensive group of individuals whose purpose is to eradicate a disease that currently follows an unremittingly, disabling course.

The PRC is now just over six years old and continues to grow in productivity, personnel and resources to help find a cure for Parkinson's disease.

The main goal of the PRC is to be an incubator for innovative ideas in Parkinson's research and to generate novel findings leading to a cure for this devastating disease. It does so by promoting and encouraging synergistic interactions between scientists and clinicians. It also brings in specialists from other areas of neurobiology, cell biology, genetics and systems biology to study the problem of Parkinson's disease. Its secondary goals are to promote awareness in the local and national community as well as to promote integration of Parkinson's disease research on a national basis.

“One lab alone will not succeed, which is why this research has to be wide effort,” says Dr. Park. “Science fundamentally relies on small groups of dedicated individuals who make discoveries, verify them and build on them, all contributing to a collective toolbox.”

New mouse solves an old problem

In his efforts to identify the relevant apoptotic regulators in animal models of brain pathology associated with Parkinson's disease, Dr. Park recently contributed quite a sizeable tool to this toolbox by developing an animal model that imitates the way the disease progresses in humans. This was an international first and solved a long standing impasse in Parkinson’s research – attempts to manipulate the genes that cause Parkinson’s symptoms in humans often had no effect in mice.

“If you don’t have a system that really models what happens in humans it’s very difficult to study,” says Dr. Park. “I mean, how do you study a degenerative process if you can’t get things to degenerate?”

Dr. Park’s answer was to build a better mouse, one that was pure enough for the gene manipulation to work. By consistently duplicating the symptoms and progression of Parkinson’s disease, the mouse population that Dr. Park developed provides researchers with a more accurate sample to test their research theories.

“Our little rodent is not the cure for Parkinson’s disease,” says Dr. Park. “But I am completely confident that it is the means that will take us down that road.”

For further information, please contact Dr. David Park, PhD using the Email contact form