Professor Di Monte, what made a renowned Parkinson’s researcher like you switch from sunny California to Bonn?
The definition of a “sunny place” for a scientist is where he/she has an opportunity to pursue research endeavours in a highly interactive environment and he/she is supported by an outstanding infrastructure. The DZNE provides such an opportunity and, for this reason, scientists from all over the world are attracted to “sunny” Bonn. At a more personal level, I think that while I might indeed miss the weather of California, the overall quality of life here will be extremely rewarding from both the cultural and lifestyle points of view.
Due to your international career you have got a good overview of – so to speak – the “scientific landscape” in different countries. What is so special about the DZNE compared to other research institutes?
Two of the most attractive features of the DZNE are its focus on all neurodegenerative diseases and a highly translational research environment. Fundamental mechanisms underlying diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease can be better studied when scientists with different expertise have an opportunity to work “under the same roof”. Daily interactions will foster the exchange of ideas, promote fruitful collaborations, and facilitate the sharing of state-of-the-art tools and resources. The other “special” feature of the DZNE is its bench-to-bedside approach. Other institutions claim to be dedicated to translational research. At the DZNE, this claim is substantiated by the very composition of its scientific staff that includes basic scientists, epidemiologists and clinicians. The ultimate goal is to convert new findings in the laboratory into novel strategies for therapeutic intervention as promptly and as efficiently as possible. My background as a physician who has been focusing on basic research for the past 20 years makes me appreciate even more the need for new therapeutics against neurodegenerative diseases and the importance of rapid translation of scientific discoveries to benefit patients.
Would you please outline your upcoming projects when you start with your research group in Bonn?
I will continue working on two major research areas. The first concerns the mechanisms that make neuronal cells vulnerable to neurodegenerative processes. For example, I am interested in age-related changes that occur in our brain since aging is an unequivocal risk factor for human neurodegenerative diseases. I am also intrigued by the possibility that neuronal susceptibility to these diseases could be enhanced by environmental factors and gene-environment interactions. If the precise mechanisms of neuronal impairment are identified and susceptibility factors clarified, then specific preventive measures and appropriate therapeutic intervention will become feasible. We are already working on this translational component. For instance, we will test the role of a protein, named alpha-synuclein, in age-related and toxicant-induced neuronal injury and assess strategies aimed at targeting this protein to achieve neuroprotection in patients affected by Parkinson’s disease.
What do you expect to become the biggest hurdle?
In my view, the most difficult challenges will always arise at the interface between basic research and clinical application of new knowledge. It is not easy to judge when a new discovery is ready for testing in patients and, even when laboratory evidence is strongly supportive, scientific considerations have to be balanced by practical, ethical and, yes, financial issues. Clinical trials are generally very expensive and, in the case of neurodegenerative diseases, are hampered by our lack of disease biomarkers. Biomarkers are biological indicators (such as a blood test) that would provide a reliable assessment of disease stage and progression. In their absence, monitoring the effects of drugs becomes less objective, often elusive and definitely more costly. From the ethical standpoint, an example of challenges is the selection of patients suitable for testing new therapeutics. It is customary (and, generally, more acceptable for ethical purposes) to “experiment” new drugs on patients who are most severely affected by a disease and who therefore may have a less than optimal response to standard treatments. However, does it really make sense to test new neuroprotective treatments when the extent of neurodegeneration has reached a devastating degree in severely affected patients? Could this have been one of the reasons for the failure of clinical trials targeting human neurodegenerative diseases to date?
From your point of view, which are the three most important features of an excellent researcher in neuroscience?
I would say curiosity, ingenuity and resilience in the face of difficulties and failures. Although these are qualities that may apply to every scientist, they are particularly important in the field of neuroscience. Just consider the fact that researchers in this field are trying to unravel the mechanisms of disease development of an organ, the brain, which is by far the most complex of our body and whose normal function has yet to be completely understood.
No disease-modifying intervention is currently available for Parkinson’s disease. Would you dare a forecast when there will be a breakthrough in therapy?
I am always reluctant to make precise predictions on research breakthroughs. The pattern of scientific evolution is one of steady advancements up to the point when a “big jump” occurs as a result of convergence of knowledge, technological advancements, genial intuition and/or fortuitous circumstances. A breakthrough could therefore happen very soon or it may take several years before we will be able to slow, halt or even reverse the progression of diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. Several considerations make me quite optimistic, however. First, the pace of research advancements has been increasing during the past 5-10 years, making it reasonable to expect a breakthrough. Our knowledge of pathogenetic processes in Parkinson’s disease has also become more sophisticated, allowing us to identify promising therapeutic targets, including alpha-synuclein. Neurodegenerative diseases are now a primary research focus from the standpoint of governmental, institutional and private agencies, which are directing resources and funding toward the fight against these diseases. Finally, the creation of new centers like the DZNE is a major reason for optimism since they will undoubtedly catalyze research on neurodegenerative diseases and, as emphasized above, promote therapeutic innovations.
Professor Di Monte thank you very much for the interview.