LONDON — Researchers from Belgium have won $1.05 million funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the philanthropic endeavor led by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his partner Priscilla Chan, to develop a new chip to study the mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease.

The funding, part of a $51.95 million program for CZI’s Neurodegeneration Challenge Network, aims to bring together experimental scientists from diverse biomedical research fields, as well as computational biologists and physicians to understand the underlying causes of neurodegenerative disorders. The Belgian team is led by professor Patrik Verstreken (VIB-KU Leuven), alongside clinical expert professor Wim Vandenberghe (UZ Leuven) and neuro-engineer Dr. Dries Braeken (imec).

Neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease, and ALS, are a class of diseases that affect millions of people worldwide. The causes of most of the diseases are only partly understood, and there are still no effective therapies to cure, prevent, or even treat most of these disorders.

Alzheimer's disease alone is the fifth most common cause of death for Americans above age 65, and the number of people with Alzheimer's and related dementias is predicted to nearly triple – from 5 million people to 14 million people – by 2060.

The Belgian team plans to create a new chip to study the mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease.

“We will produce mature human neuronal microcircuits that are relevant to Parkinson’s disease on a multi-electrode array chip," saidimec’s Braeken said. "This chip will be used to measure electrophysiological changes between neuronal circuits of cells obtained from healthy people and from an extensive collection of Parkinson’s patients.”

The 2D chip is a first step to develop a 3D human-relevant model for brain function and disease.

Verstreken said the goal is to "print" tiny portions of the human brain on a unique chip, giving researchers access to human brain tissue, from both patients and healthy individuals. They will use the technology not only to track disease progression, but also to screen for strategies to correct problems. Meanwhile, Vandenberghe, said the potential benefits expand far beyond the field of Parkinson’s.

Brain tissue chip

“While we will develop this chip using tissue from Parkinson’s patients, the same technology can be used to create better models for Huntington’s disease, or any other neurodegenerative disease for that matter," Vandenberghe said.

The foundation selected nine project teams from a competitive international call. Next to the Belgian consortium, only one other non-US team was selected.

CZI said that despite tremendous investment and progress in understanding neurodegenerative diseases, there remains a surprising amount of very basic information about their biology that is not known. The initiative is hoping to inspire a new approach to tackling neurodegenerative disease, supporting interdisciplinary collaborations and generating shared tools, resources and platforms.