A curious mind sparks Parkinson’s research interest

03 March 2015

A curious mind sparks Parkinson’s research interestWhen Parkinson’s disease claimed the life of his surrogate grandmother two years ago, UTS Science alumnus Dominic Hare’s mission to develop a treatment became personal.  

“Seeing what Parkinson’s disease does to someone you care about only spurs you on,” says Hare. “I’ve always thought the grandmother I knew passed away years before her body physically shut down.”

The 31-year-old Chancellor’s Post Doctoral Research Fellow with the School of Chemistry and Forensic Science hopes a treatment for Parkinson’s, similar to insulin for diabetics, will be available within the next few decades – offering relief for around 80 000 Australians who suffer the disease. 

“If we can identify the reactions that cause cells to die in Parkinson’s disease, we can design treatments that can stop it happening in the first place.”

Hare was originally enrolled in forensic science, but his interest in Parkinson’s was sparked during his undergraduate years at UTS when he scored a part-time job at the NSW Department of Forensic Medicine.

“I ended up working in the histopathology laboratory and I actually found that my interest was more directed to natural diseases,” he says. 

This interest in natural deaths rather than those caused by crime convinced Hare to transfer to a Bachelor of Science in Applied Chemistry, which he finished in 2005.

Hare went on to complete his PhD at UTS four years later, developing a method to take pictures of metals in brains. The technique uses UTS’s world-class Elemental Bio-Imaging Facility, of which Hare was a founding member. 

Sections of brain tissue thinner than a human hair are positioned on microscope slides and a laser beam is fired across them. The laser hits the tissue and forms tiny particles that are carried into plasma as hot as the surface of the sun. 

The tissue is broken down into its elements to reveal the metal imbalances in areas of the brain affected by diseases, such as increased iron in areas affected by Parkinson’s.

This technology has been applied to different fields of biological research around the globe, including cancer research.

Hare’s work has earned him an adjunct position at the prestigious Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) in New York, and a secondment to the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne to investigate why the brains of Parkinson’s patients contain more iron than healthy ones. 

While there is a natural tendency for the amount of iron in the brain to increase with age, Hare is convinced early exposure to iron could be a major risk factor for Parkinson’s. 

“If you give your body a head start by overloading it with iron early in life, it will fill up in your body faster than nature intended, starting the chemical process that leads to cells dying in Parkinson’s.”

Hare’s experiments at ISMMS look at patients’ teeth as records of previous exposure. He believes correlating the amount of iron in someone’s teeth and brain could reveal their risk of developing Parkinson’s as they age.

“Our focus is on identifying when the disease begins. Knowing this will permit early detection and a longer, improved quality of life.”

Story by Natalie Clancy
Photography by Joanna Saad

Reproduced with permission from U: magazine.