Anumantha Kanthasamy, Ph.D.
Neuroscience and neurotoxicology
The University of Georgia
It has been 200 years since the English doctor James Parkinson first described the neurological condition now known as Parkinson’s disease. And yet, the only treatment available to Parkinson’s patients today can only slow down the disease for a few years, after symptoms have already appeared. But finally, research is beginning to yield tangible clues that could lead to early diagnosis of Parkinson's; new ways to slow the disease; and new approaches to reverse the damage to the brain that Parkinson’s causes.
Anu Kanthasamy is working to address all three of these challenges. For more than two decades, he has explored the genetic and environmental factors linked to Parkinson’s onset and how new medicines and approaches can better defend the body from the disease.
Just recently, Kanthasamy’s research group developed a simple test that could accurately identify Parkinson's disease in skin samples. They plan to expand this research and test it on samples gathered through a routine biopsy from patient. The hope is that the test will lead to earlier detection of Parkinson's disease, before symptoms appear, thus allowing patients to be treated before the disease has progressed and slow down the occurrence of symptoms.
The test looks for the presence of “misfolded” alpha-synuclein proteins. The accumulation of these proteins in the brain inflames and damages the neurons that lead to Parkinson's disease. Only people with Parkinson’s have these misfolded proteins, and Kanthasamy and his team were able to show that they can be found not only in the brain but also just under the skin, where nerve endings are present.
Researchers have identified mutations in a handful of genes linked to Parkinson’s, but these mutations account for about 10% of cases. For the other 90%, the cause isn’t known, but studies indicate that exposure to certain chemicals or heavy metals can increase the risk of onset.
In his exploration, Kanthasamy discovered that it’s the nature of chemical exposure that can cause the proteins to misfold or degrade. He also showed that certain cell pathways, or processes involving molecules in the cells, are activated, thus triggering inflammation. His group is now looking for a way to block these cellular pathways so that even if the misfolded protein is present, it does not cause inflammation. This, in effect, would be able to slowdown the progression of Parkinson’s disease.
Until now, the only treatment available to Parkinson’s patients is the drug Levodopa. The drug works very well to prevent the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s for 5 to 7 years, but once this “honeymoon” period is over, symptoms appear – and, cruelly, the drug then speeds the progression of Parkinson’s.
Kanthasamy has come up with a new way to deliver the drug without this side effect. His team showed that a bacterium that lives in the gut – a probiotic bacterium – can be genetically modified so that it produces the neurochemical needed to slow down Parkinson’s. He and his team also found that the probiotic also increases cognitive function and reduces anxiety in animals so it may well have a much broader application, such as for Alzheimer's and possibly even depression.
Kanthasamy has launched two companies, PK Biosciences and Probiome Therapeutics, to bring to market the drug candidates and biomarkers that have emerged from his research. He has also authored over 200 peer-reviewed research papers. (
Kanthasamy was named the first John H. “Johnny” Isakson Chair for Parkinson’s Research in March 2021 in honor of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. “I’m very proud to play a part in this effort,” said Isakson. “Of course, I’m honored that this position would carry my name, but more than anything, I am glad to see so many willing to give so much for this important cause. My deepest gratitude goes out to everyone who gave to support this research.”
- Understanding cellular and molecular mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders
- Developing new technologies for early diagnosis of Parkinson’s
- Conducting translational drug discovery research
- Applying the gut microbiome for drug development
Straight from the Scholar
“The University of Georgia is in the top class of land-grant institutions with strong support for research and education. It is a nice fit for my group to come here and work on neuroscience-related research. There are many other researchers doing neuroscience work and pharmacology, but there is also a lot of work happening on drug development related activities. There has also been key support for our research, both from the Johnny Isakson Chair funding and also through GRA. This helps my group to expand the translational work: taking the basic science and translating it to treatments or diagnostic markers for neurological diseases.”