In this EPND Parkinson's Awareness Month feature, we speak with Michele Hu, Professor of Clinical Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. Parkinson's disease is the fastest-growing neurodegenerative disorder, affecting over 10 million people worldwide. Professor Hu is an expert on Parkinson's disease biomarkers, which have the potential to improve the ways we diagnose, monitor and treat this incurable, progressive condition.
Read on to find out more about Michele's work in EPND, her career path to date, and what Parkinson's Awareness Month means to her.
Hi Michele! What is your current role at the University of Oxford and at the Oxford Parkinson’s Disease Centre?
At the University of Oxford, I am a Professor of Clinical Neuroscience and Consultant Neurologist, also acting as the Deputy Head of the Division of Clinical Neurology. I am also co-Principal Investigator with Professor Richard Wade-Martins of the OPDC (Oxford Parkinson’s Disease Centre), which aims to improve the understanding of the biology of Parkinson’s disease (PD) and identify predictors of onset and subsequent progression.
What is your role in the EPND project?
I bring my knowledge and experience from leading Parkinson’s cohorts and biomarker research to help develop EPND as a platform for research on PD and other neurodegenerative disorders. My focus is on delivering the Parkinson’s-related aspects of this project, particularly the work on PD biomarkers and development of a minimally-sized, common use concept model for a core/minimal dataset. Specifically, we are collaborating with other clinicians to develop a data model capturing key clinical variables and sample annotation variables across three disease areas: Alzheimer's disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, and PD. This data model will then be used to support ontology mappings for the EPND biomarker case studies, existing cohort discovery networks in EPND, and some of the new cohorts that will be added as part of the project.
Tell us a bit about your career so far: how did you get involved in Parkinson’s disease research?
I obtained my medical degree from the University of London in 1993, and I started working on PD in 1998, when I was awarded an Action Research Training Fellowship to study brain function in PD patients using brain imaging techniques. My PhD was awarded based on this work, and I then went on to train in PD and movement disorders at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Royal Free Hospital and Oxford University Hospitals. Since commencing my Oxford NHS consultant appointment in 2005, I have led the medical PD and movement disorders service, setting up one of only seven nationally-accredited atypical PD clinics (MSA, CBD and PSP) at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, in addition to managing a caseload of around 500 Parkinsonian patients.
My clinical research work is in the field of longitudinal cohort studies and biomarkers for early and prodromal Parkinson’s disease, with particular focus on REM sleep behaviour disorder, and how sleep affects neurodegeneration. My interests include the delivery of tractable, low cost, wearable technology that can have a real impact on patient’s daily lives, alongside imaging the human brain from prodromal to established Parkinson’s disease.
What do you see as some of the main challenges facing Parkinson’s disease research?
There is a lack of clinically relevant biomarkers that are sensitive to measuring motor and cognitive progression, and we also need better biomarkers that can recapitulate underlying driving disease pathology for PD, to help us develop more targeted treatments. To deliver much-needed therapies for our patients, we must improve the design of clinical trials for Parkinson’s disease, with multimodal biomarkers, and multiple therapy arms similar to those currently used for cancer treatments.
Dr. James Parkinson, who first described Parkinson's disease in 1817, was a surgeon, social reformer and political activist who was born in April - the month we celebrate Parkinson's Awareness Month. What does Parkinson’s Awareness Month mean to you?
For me, Parkinson’s Awareness Month is an opportunity to raise awareness of the Parkinson’s pandemic, whereby prevalence of this progressive, incurable condition will double in the next two decades.