Neurologist Vikram Khurana brings a new perspective to Parkinson’s disease research

When neurologist Dr. Vikram Khurana tells his patients that he’s doing all he can to help them, he’s not exaggerating—after treating patients for Parkinson’s disease in the clinic, he works to find a cure for Parkinson’s in the lab. Part clinician, part researcher, Khurana is both an attending neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a scientist at Whitehead Institute. His research focuses on discovering new therapeutics capable of reversing the neurodegeneration that is a hallmark of Parkinson’s.

Originally from Australia, Khurana’s path to biomedical research began shortly after he graduated medical school at the University of Sydney. As a medical intern, he became discouraged by the absence of any treatments that slow down neurodegenerative diseases.

Dr. Vikram Khurana

Part clinician, part researcher, Dr. Vikram Khurana is both an attending neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a scientist at Whitehead Institute. Photo credit: Mark Bushy

“The problem is that there are no disease-modifying therapies for Parkinson’s,” explains Khurana. “We can treat the symptoms of the disease for ten years or so, but after that point the treatments themselves become debilitating. That makes pure clinical work extraordinarily frustrating.”

In 2002, Khurana moved to Boston to purse a doctorate at Harvard Medical School, where he studied the pathogenesis and the mechanisms of neurodegeneration, the process by which neurons are lost in diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. He went on to complete his clinical training in neurology and movement disorders at Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s Hospitals in Boston. And now, having moved his research to Whitehead Institute, Khurana is back in the lab where he works closely with world-renowned scientists including Whitehead Institute Members Susan Lindquist and Rudolf Jaenisch.

Khurana’s efforts to identify a treatment for Parkinson’s disease rely on human neurons, which have been created via the cellular “reprogramming” of skin cells into stem cells. Here, Khurana works with stem cells in a Whitehead Institute lab. Photo credit: Mark Bushy

At Whitehead, Khurana’s efforts to identify a treatment for Parkinson’s disease utilize two distinct models: 1) yeast and 2) diseased, human neurons created via the cellular “reprogramming” of skin cells into stem cells. In yeast—which grows rapidly and is easily genetically manipulated—Khurana aims to use high-throughput screening to identify compounds capable of reversing neurodegeneration. Once a viable compound is indentified in yeast, he tests the compound on diseased, human neurons, which are created using Whitehead’s advanced cellular reprogramming technology. In fact, a number of the cells used for testing have been isolated from Khurana’s patients at Massachusetts General Hospital. “I know the patients whose cells I’ve reprogrammed,” he says.

Today, Khurana’s research is accelerating at a rapid pace and is already yielding potential disease-modifying therapies for Parkinson’s disease. Despite his busy research agenda, Khurana maintains his weekly clinical schedule. “The patient-clinical experience is very important for me,” says Khurana. “It drives everything I do in the lab.”