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Confessions of a Parkinson’s Researcher

Authors:
Ana Maria Salinas Montalvo – Menzies Health Institute Queensland and School of Medical Sciences, Griffith University
Joshua Saji – Sunnybank State High School
Shreyash Turai – Sunnybank State High School

Parkinson’s is a nerve-related disease that causes its patients to shake uncontrollably (or have tremors). As the disease progresses, patients can experience difficulties moving, balancing and speaking, leading to reduced capacity and quality of life. The disease affects more than 80,000 Australians and costs the Australian Government around 10 billion dollars a year in health costs. Parkinson’s is a complex disease and there is much we still don’t understand about it; however, multidisciplinary scientists including Professor George Mellick are researching innovative ways to diagnose and treat Parkinson’s disease.  

Prof. Mellick was born in northern Queensland, Australia, and is proud to be a Mareeba boy. He began his journey in science studying mathematics and physics before becoming interested in and studying chemistry and biochemistry at The University of Queensland. He graduated with a PhD in medical sciences in 1996. While at university, Prof. Mellick became interested in the toxic theory of Parkinson’s disease, that states that there must be a chemical compound or toxin that kills neurons in the brain, leading to the disease. From that moment on his passion for coming to understand Parkinson’s disease has driven his career for more than 25 years. He is now a research leader at the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, Griffith University and President of Parkinson’s Queensland and Parkinson’s Australia, through which he advocates for people affected by Parkinson’s disease.

“I consider myself a multidisciplinary scientist. When you’re trying to solve a very complex problem you need as many tools as you can muster. Difficult questions need to be approached from all angles and so I want to learn from all scientific disciplines to maximise our chances to find useful solutions to Parkinson’s,” said Prof. Mellick.

Parkinson’s mostly affects people who are older than 60 and it seems that some individuals are predisposed to it – they inherit it through their genes. There are treatments available that can help manage the symptoms, but there is no cure. Parkinson’s is usually diagnosed when patients’ brain cells are already 50% damaged and it is too late for effective treatment. Prof. Mellick emphasises the need to diagnose Parkinson’s before the onset of symptoms so treatments can give patients a reasonable quality of life. Future diagnostic technology may help allow patients to receive treatment before their brain tissue collapses. The origins of the disease are also still a mystery, but it is believed that the disease process, which involves mis-folded proteins that can move from cell to cell, has some similarities with infectious proteins (prions) that affect the dying brain.

To tackle the various problems related to Parkinson’s, Prof. Mellick is involved in multiple projects including trying to find the genes that cause the disease (genetics), identifying unique proteins produced only in Parkinson’s (biomarkers) that could allow for early diagnosis of the disease, environmental studies and the development of new drug therapies.

Prof. Mellick confesses that he has felt a lot of uncertainty throughout his research career – every time someone finds an answer, other issues to be solved arise. He also feels challenged by a lack of funding despite the fact that Parkinson’s is a burden to many people across the world, not just in Australia. However, while the benefits of Prof. Mellick’s and his colleagues research will take some time to come through, Prof. Mellick is optimistic that it will improve the lives of those suffering from Parkinson’s in future. He hopes that his research will continue through the next generations of scientists.

“If we can encourage a new generation to pursue science, we will be okay. We need more people using evidenced-based scientific approaches to solve the complex issues we are dealing with in society today and those we’ll face into the future. This is why science education is so important,” said Prof. Mellick.

After almost three decades of studying Parkinson’s, Prof. Mellick feels that, “the most interesting part of my research is working with people”. He loves listening and talking to the patients, students, researchers and philanthropists who help or fund his team’s research. He hopes to raise more awareness from the public so people can keep contributing to this important work. The research is slow and for the moment steady, but his efforts give us hope that one day we will find a definite cure for this burden. Would you like to help uncover Parkinson’s mysteries in the future? We hope you will.

If you would like to donate to the Parkinson’s project at the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, please use this link: www.griffith.edu.au/institute-drug-discovery/our-institute/donate

Judges’ Feedback

“I loved all the stats and explanations, and the balance between making it heart felt while also scientific.”

“This is a very informative article, with great use of statistics and a compelling story.”

“The messages within the story are communicated clearly with minimal technical jargon, making this easy to read. There are a number of interesting information about Dr. Mellick shared as well, which helps the reader to connect with him on a personal/human level.”