Alumni Making a Difference

Preempting Parkinson's

Bradford Casey, Ph.D., on building momentum for research and a cure at The Michael J. Fox Foundation

While he’s a paramedic by training, Bradford Casey, Ph.D., no longer works out of the back of an ambulance. From his office high above the hustle of midtown Manhattan, he oversees a global network of scientists for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which is advancing new treatments and understanding about the condition through work spanning genomics, data science, and biological discovery.

Bradford Casey
Bradford Casey, Ph.D. Provided by Bradford Casey

A life-threatening neuro-degenerative disorder that causes tremors, stiffness, and a slowing of movement, Parkinson’s disease befell the Foundation’s namesake at age 29, shortly after the release of Back to the Future III in 1990. Since its creation in 2000, the Foundation has become the world’s largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson’s disease research with more than $1 billion in supported research projects.

A 2016 alumnus of UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Dr. Casey helps determine which organizations receive funding. Working closely with other Foundation scientists, he has developed a national outreach strategy, travelling to Washington to collaborate with the National Institutes of Health. One of his core projects is the NIH Accelerating Medicines Partnership, a public-private consortium focused on leveraging strengths of federal, academic, and industry partners to develop shared research tools to ultimately find a cure for Parkinson’s.

A native of North Texas, Dr. Casey came from humble beginnings. He attended Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch, Texas, where he trained as an EMT and paramedic, becoming, in his words, “an immediate problem-solver when it comes to the human body.” His first experience with UT Southwestern came through a joint EMT licensure program, and the scientists and physicians he met whetted his appetite for research in science, medicine, and the brain.

What drew you to UT Southwestern?

The brain is one of the most unique things about us as humans, shaping how we understand the world. There’s not a ton of scholarly work on the brain being done by paramedics, and at UT Southwestern I started working in the labs of Matthew Goldberg, Ph.D., and Malú Tansey, Ph.D., on a project to look at preclinical models of Parkinson’s that was actually funded by Michael J. Fox at the time.

For my doctoral work, I considered some prestigious neuroscience programs around the country, but it was Nancy Street, Ph.D. (Biomedical Sciences ’87), a former Associate Dean at UT Southwestern’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, who encouraged me to apply. My doctoral thesis and post-doctoral work with Jane E. Johnson, Ph.D., involved using novel computational genomics strategies in neuroscience to apply big data approaches to biological data sets – some the same sets that the Foundation has been instrumental in collecting and that I helped assemble at UT Southwestern.

What’s life been like since graduation?

The Fox Foundation reached out to me about work on biomarkers and the kind of discovery approaches that I had worked on at UT Southwestern, and I ended up applying for a job and interviewing across the table from some of the same researchers I had previously collaborated with.

I’m still involved in the science, but my position involves a high degree of communication and networking with other scientists. The Foundation hosts many workshops with academics and industry groups. We are unique in that we’re a funder, but we also want industry to be willing to invest in the research to do the drug discovery. At the end of the day, the best place for me right now is not in the lab, my job is to keep a 10,000 foot-view of the field and understand what leading labs are doing to make sure they are thinking about things consistently and not necessarily with the same hypotheses.

What progress is being made in Parkinson’s research?

There is a great deal of new excitement in the field, inspired by this year’s discovery of a new biomarker of Parkinson’s disease, which the Foundation supported. This has the potential to dramatically change the field of Parkinson’s research and drug development.

We also have a much better understanding of the role genetics plays in Parkinson’s. We think that 15% to 20% of Parkinson’s cases have a clear genetic predisposing risk factor, but we’re also trying to understand the epidemiological and environmental features that are involved. Agricultural chemicals and other chemical exposures are indeed a significant risk factor not only for agricultural workers but for veterans. Service members may be exposed to known risk factors overseas, and potentially other factors not approved or used here in the United States. For example, in the Middle East or in areas of Southeast Asia, different substances are at play, such as heavy metals.

We’re learning more every day about how those risk factors stack up and what we should be focusing on biologically in our effort to conquer Parkinson’s.

Who inspires your work?

While I don’t work closely with Michael, he is very involved in the Foundation, and occasionally I get a chance to talk to him. Honestly, he is one of the most intellectually curious and optimistic people I’ve ever met. Getting to work with Michael and with some of his family members has been incredibly inspiring to me. Here is a man who has struggled with something – both privately for a long time, then publicly – and his attitude about that is impressive for people like me who have not faced that level of challenge to overcome.

His recent documentary, Still, is an inspiring look at his story. It speaks to the challenges of Parkinson’s, even for someone like Michael who has a lot of resources to deal with the disease and knows how impactful his role can be in helping other people.

  • Jane E. Johnson, Ph.D., is a Professor of Neuroscience and Pharmacology at UT Southwestern. She holds the Shirley and William S. McIntyre Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience.