Student heads research for Parkinson’s Disease treatment


Jillian Alt/Iowa State Daily

Graduate and Professional Student Senate President, Vivek Lawana, presenting his research at 3 minute thesis competition on Nov. 6.

Jillian Alt

An Iowa State graduate student was in 11th grade when he lost his grandfather to what was determined to be natural causes. 

Years later, as the student studied Parkinson’s Disease, he realized the true cause of death. 

Vivek Lawana, doctoral student in toxicology and president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, is using this experience as motivation for his research developing new treatment for the disease. 

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease, with approximately 1 percent of all people above the age of 65 affected.

When someone has Parkinson’s Disease, the dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra region of the brain begin a chain reaction of self destruction as a result of oxidative stress, Lawana said. The substantia nigra is the part of the brain that controls motor function, leading to the symptoms of tremors, rigidity and postural instability.

When the mitochondria—the powerhouse of the cell—is damaged, it creates oxidative stress. After a lot of stress, the cells crumble under the pressure and decide to kill themselves.

Vivek Lawana studies Parkinson’s Disease specifically in the case of environmental causes; these typically are pesticides or other chemicals. He explained the intricate details of the disease and how it works on a cellular level.

“Mainly cells can die two ways,” Lawana said. “If you want to destroy this room, you could put a bomb inside it and boom. It’s gone. That’s necrosis. With Parkinson’s Disease, it’s programmed, so you’re tearing it down brick by brick. That’s called apoptosis.”

These cells killing themselves are constantly sending messages to one another to self destruct—like a game of telephone—and the chain reaction continues until symptoms emerge.

“So, say something bad is happening on Welch Avenue,” Lawana said. “There’s a lot of police there. Those are the microglia. Once the problem, or the bad guy—in this case the neuron—is dead, the shooting should stop there.”

Lawana set the scene saying police at the scene represent the microglia and the criminal causing the chaos is the damaged neuron. In a healthy brain, once the damaged neuron is dead, the microglia would deactivate. In the case of Parkinson’s Disease, the microglia continue to cause damage. 

Lawana compared this to if the police continued to fire their weapons after the criminal was killed. 

“If the police just keep shooting all over the place, a lot of innocent people are going to die. But in this case, it’s the healthy neurons that die,” Lawana said. 

When the tell-tale symptoms start to emerge—such as motor impairment, tremors, stiffness and rigidity—70 to 80 percent of the neurons are already dead. Currently all existing treatments only treat the symptoms, and there are no treatments to stop the neurons from dying.

This is where Lawana comes in. The goal of his research has been to identify the cell that is starting the chain reaction of neurons dying and target that cell specifically to stop the chain reaction before it can begin.

Lawana has identified the C-ABL protein to be what he believes to be the “big boss” starting the chain reaction of neurons dying and has been testing this theory. This has been found in other research labs to be true in the case of the neuron signals. However, Lawana’s research has also found this to be true in the case of the microglia as well.

This has not been tested on brains because this organ is difficult to acquire and is costly, Lawana said. They instead use what is called in vitro matter. These are basically artificial cells that act like neurons, but aren’t actual neurons.

Currently he is researching ways to deactivate this C-ABL protein to stop the chain reaction before it can begin and prevent them from transmitting messages to kill themselves.

“We are definitely making progress,” Lawana said. “I wouldn’t say we are having success because to me success would be having a drug on the market. However we do have some potential drugs that we are screening right now that could be successful.”

Lawana could not tell us what drugs are currently being tested, as this is confidential currently.

Vivek Lawana is close to the disease because his grandfather died from Parkinson’s, and he believes his mother has it as well. He said last time he was home and his mother was telling him about some of her symptoms, it was incredibly saddening.

“If I lost my mother to Parkinson’s, I wouldn’t know where to go.” Lawana said.

Lawana is from India, where medicine is much farther behind than in America, so it’s very difficult to be diagnosed.

Lawana believes his grandfather also had Parkinson’s disease, and he was never diagnosed. He described his grandfather as having a bent posture often, having a tremor and having lost his appetite. When he was in 11th grade his grandfather died.

“The doctors told us that ‘oh this happens with old age,’ so that’s what I believed,” Lawana said. “But when I actually started studying Parkinson’s disease, I started looking back and I realized that he had this disease.”

Lawana hopes to find success in having a drug on the market to treat Parkinson’s disease soon, and said he feels confidently about some of the drugs currently being tested.