Parkinson Foundation Designates UNC as 'Center of Excellence'

The National Parkinson Foundation has designated UNC as one of its Centers of Excellence.

With this accolade, the UNC School of Medicine and UNC Hospitals became the first medical center in North Carolina to join the ranks of only 42 such Centers of Excellence worldwide. UNC is the only such center in the Carolinas and Virginia.

“This is quite an honor for our Parkinson’s program,” said Dr. Xuemei Huang, an assistant professor in UNC’s department of neurology and medical director of the newly designated NPF Center of Excellence at UNC Hospitals. “It is a validation of our department’s increased focus on neurodegenerative disorders over the last three years. That is leading to better patient care informed by the latest cutting-edge research.”

After finishing her medical training, Huang earned a doctorate and completed postdoctoral training in Parkinson’s-related research. She then completed a clinical movement disorder fellowship at Emory University. She joined UNC’s faculty in 2002, when she founded the Movement Disorders Clinic. She later was joined by Dr. Richard Murrow, and the number of Parkinson’s patients treated in the clinic has since grown to more than 300.

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common age-related disorder after Alzheimer’s, and the number of people with Parkinson’s is expected to increase dramatically over the next 10 to 12 years as the population of people aged 65 and older expands.

The NPF notified UNC of the designation in a letter to Huang. “This designation constitutes NPF’s public seal of approval, defining the gold standard in Parkinson research, support and care,” the letter said. The letter also said UNC is eligible to apply for grants from the foundation next year to support basic or clinical research, comprehensive care for Parkinson’s disease and outreach services. One of UNC’s near-term goals for its NPF Center of Excellence is to hire a full-time outreach coordinator.

According to the NPF’s Charter for Centers of Excellence, these centers “are expected to assume a leadership position in the provision of innovative models of service and in the development of community relations to support health-promotion efforts.”

“In short, a Center of Excellence is expected to be the place to which persons with Parkinson disease, caregivers and families, health care providers, and others in the community turn for the most up-to-date research, specialized services, support, information and referral services for Parkinson disease,” the charter says.

UNC’s department of neurology has been caring for patients with Parkinson’s disease since the opening of N.C. Memorial Hospital in 1952. In the past two years, there has been a rapid expansion in resources and expertise devoted to Parkinson’s disease at UNC.

Dr. Frank Longo, chair of the department, has made movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease a high-priority area. To provide top clinical care, he recruited several faculty members, including Huang, Murrow, Dr. Alexander I. Tröster and Dr. Daniel Kaufer.

Huang leads UNC’s translational research program in Parkinson’s disease, and Murrow is developing a deep-brain stimulation program. Tröster’s expertise is in cognitive and related aspects of Parkinson’s disease, including caregiver coping and quality-of-life issues. Kaufer, recruited to head the memory and cognitive disorders division, provides expertise in managing cognitive and neuropsychiatric symptoms that commonly occur in Parkinson’s disease.

Basic and clinical neuroscience research related to Parkinson’s disease also is flourishing at UNC. Dr. William Snider ’71, professor and director of UNC’s Neuroscience Center since 2000, is the principal investigator for a center grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which supports molecular, genetic and high-resolution imaging approaches in neuroscience research.

Dr. Richard Mailman, a professor and director of the division of psychobiology and research in UNC’s department of psychiatry, leads the basic research initiative in Parkinson’s disease. Mailman is recognized as a pioneer in the therapeutic development of D1 dopamine agonists, one of the most promising therapeutic directions on the horizon for Parkinson’s.

Huang currently has an NIA-funded career development award to investigate the neural circuitry of motor dysfunction in Parkinson’s disease using functional MRI techniques. She and Dr. J. Douglas Mann, a professor in the department of neurology, have been awarded an NIH planning grant to evaluate the use of Korean acupuncture to treat Parkinson’s patients.

Kaufer previously worked in the Center for Excellence for Parkinson’s disease at the University of Pittsburgh. He was recruited to UNC in 2003, and his primary research interest is in the overlap between Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, where he will apply genetic and functional magnetic resonance imaging methods to improve clinical differential diagnosis.

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