Pursuing a breakthrough for Parkinson’s

Published on 6 July 2021

There can be no greater example of the transformative impact of modern science than that in the developing of a Coronavirus vaccine

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Within a year of the pandemic being declared, several vaccines had been developed, trialled, manufactured and distributed, a mammoth task made possible by funding the combined efforts, ingenuity and dedication of the world’s scientific community. 

But while much of the world’s research endeavours have focused on Covid-19 since the start of 2020, there needs to be intense focus on other conditions for which there remains an urgent, unmet need for new treatments. 

One of these is Parkinson’s disease, a disabling neurodegenerative illness which more than 200 years after being first identified still has no cure and no way of being slowed down. The most successful drug to manage Parkinson’s is Levodopa which was developed 60 years ago. Since then there has been no major breakthrough in the management or treatment of the disease.  The challenges facing people living with Parkinson’s and the problems facing Parkinson’s researchers are stark.  

The University of Dundee is a leading centre for Parkinson’s research, hosting world-renowned experts who are dedicated to improving our understanding of the condition. Their efforts are backed by the Dundee Parkinson’s Research Campaign, a fundraising initiative aimed to make Dundee the global centre for Parkinson’s research. 

Marc Van Grieken was just 49 when his right leg froze as if ‘glued’ to the spot and he had to stop running. Now 64, Marc, who lives in Perthshire, has supported the University’s Medical Research Centre Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit (MRC-PPU) with his own fundraising efforts.

“Parkinson’s is a relentless, continually progressing illness,” he said. 

“I was a keen runner – I ran the New York Marathon in 2003 – and was in training for another marathon in 2005 when I noticed a problem in my right leg. It just froze and would not move. 

“Following my diagnosis, I did not really want to know about Parkinson’s. Much later I started to attend a few meetings organised by Parkinson’s UK aimed at expanding their Research Support Network, by means of establishing more Research Interest Groups in Scotland. That led to forming the Dundee Research Interest Group (DRIG) which from the start has had close contact with the MRC-PPU. 

“I became the Chair of that group and that is what allowed me to meet the research team at Dundee for the first time. 

“The scientists at this unit were and continue to be incredibly welcoming and their commitment to Parkinson’s research was very clear. They invited people with Parkinson’s to tour the lab and actively contribute to the group. The commitment, determination and drive of the research team and their belief that science will help to arrest, or even cure Parkinson’s is hugely encouraging.” 

One of those people who has helped Marc is Dr Esther Sammler, a clinical programme leader at the MRC-PPU and honorary consultant neurologist at Ninewells Hospital, NHS Tayside. 

Esther’s dedication to studying Parkinson’s focuses on the translation of basic science from bench to bedside and how genetics and mechanistic studies in human bio-samples can help stratify people with Parkinson’s according to Parkinson’s subtypes. She balances her research work with public-facing roles, including her public outreach and engagement work or as a consultant neurologist looking after people with Parkinson’s and running clinical trials and clinical research studies. 

“The greatest unmet need in Parkinson’s disease are treatments that alter the underlying degenerative process of brain cells,” she said. 

Dr Esther Sammler with shelves full of equipment behind her
“The discovery of genes that directly cause Parkinson’s in a small number of people has provided us with crucial insights into underlying disease relevant mechanisms on a molecular and cellular level”

Dr Esther Sammler

“This knowledge has been leveraged for devising novel treatment strategies that are now entering clinical trials to evaluate their safety and efficacy. There’s not one person with Parkinson’s that is the same as another and my work is about developing ways in which we can tailor support for every individual to give them the best quality of life possible and in the future offer personalized treatments.” 

A professional Landscape Architect, Marc uses much of his spare time to raise awareness of Parkinson’s disease and fundraise for Parkinson’s UK and research at the MRC-PPU.  Since the start of 2017, and thanks to huge support from family, friends and colleagues, he has raised in total close to £100,000 over the last four years. His latest venture was taking part in the University of Dundee’s 30 Days Challenge to raise money towards the Dundee Parkinson’s Research Campaign. 

To raise awareness of the Dundee Parkinson's Research Campaign we launched a 30 day Challenge in June with a fundraising target of £10, 000. News about our results from our fundraisers will be featured in our next alumni newsletter.


The University launched its Dundee Parkinson’s Research Campaign in 2019 to establish Dundee as the global centre for Parkinson’s research. Building on the respected experts, state-of-the-art facilities, and established links with charitable foundations and pharmaceutical companies, it is an effort that Marc believes could ultimately produce transformative results for those living with the condition. 

“When I first met the team at Dundee I was really taken by their commitment and enthusiasm,” he continued. 

“They also attract the best new talent, and that is a real sign of the reputation that Dundee has in researching this illness. 

“As a community, people living with Parkinson’s need to be louder. We need to be demanding more attention. Campaigns such as the University’s helps to shine a light on Parkinson’s disease and the impact that it has on so many lives.” 

Whilst our team of scientists continue to make progress towards better diagnosis and treatments, the Dundee Parkinson’s Research Campaign has successfully raised the funding needed to purchase an MRI guided Focus Ultrasound machine. This will allow our research team within the School of Medicine to begin trials of an innovative non-invasive treatment that will turn off the tremor caused by Parkinson’s Disease. Without the generosity and foresight of our many donors including trusts and foundations, individuals and legacy gifts, this life changing treatment would not be possible here in Dundee.  

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