Researcher Dr Anton Gartner shares his experiences of Parkinson's

Dr Anton Gartner
Dr Anton Gartner is a Parkinson's UK funded researcher at the University of Dundee.

Anton's research project using C.Elegans worms (PDF, 262KB) inspired us to create Dave the Worm - the newest member of the Parkinson's UK Fundraising team.

Anton recently told us a bit more about his groundbreaking research using worms to study Parkinson's.

We asked Anton to tell us about his personal connections to his research:

I don't have close relatives or friends affected by Parkinson's but my own mother is affected by another neurodegenerative condition called Multiple Sclerosis.

After 30 years with this, she is still doing fine and lives an independent life but has difficulty with walking. She can walk up to 100 meters or so but then she gets tired.

I experienced her anxiety in those early days when the first symptoms started to appear. Now I really admire her for moving on, always looking forward and making the very best of her life. She is fond of Dave the Worm and is now one of his international supporters.

Experiences of Parkinson's

I first met people with Parkinson's when I was working as a nurse on a hospital ward in Vienna just after obtaining my PhD.

At the time in Austria everyone had to complete a year of  'social service' - so it was this or join the army.

To begin with I was quite upset about having to leave the lab and not using the skills it hadn't taken so long to learn. But I soon started to enjoy the job and I gained much more than I would have done by staying in the lab for another year.

I learned how to deal with people, how to encourage them and how to help where help can be provided.

Although it was challenging having to deal with people affected by various and often very serious illnesses, I learned from them to stay optimistic and to enjoy life as much as one can.

And I remember many conversations, so much more thoughtful than often done in a lab.

I remember the day I met my first patient with Parkinson's very clearly. 

We were trained to encourage our patients to be as independent as possible; so I encouraged him, as he seemed mobile and independent, to shave himself – something he hadn't done for a while.

Sure enough without saying a word he shaved himself, but unfortunately with several cuts. I felt terrible, but he was great, we became friends and it became my job to help him shave.

We enjoyed our time. Life is not always about big stories.

This Parkinson's Awareness Week (15-21 April) we're asking everyone to put themselves in people with Parkinson's shoes, and like Anton get a better understanding of how the condition affects day to day life.

And during the week Dave the Worm will be getting out and about to visit more Parkinson's researchers and find out more about their lives in the lab, so keep an eye on Dave's Facebook and Twitter pages for updates.

What can worms teach us about Parkinson's?

Dr Anton Gartner
Dr Anton Gartner is a Parkinson's UK funded researcher at the University of Dundee.

Anton's research project using C.Elegans worms (PDF, 262KB) inspired us to create Dave the Worm - the newest member of the Parkinson's UK fundraising team.

We recently asked Anton to tell us a bit more about his life in the lab:

When did you first start working with worms?

I started working with worms in 1997 when I was a postdoctoral researcher in Cold Spring Harbor - a famous lab close to New York. At the time I was using my worms to learn more about how and why cells die.

As I write, thousands of the cells that make up my body are dying. But luckily we're all made of billions of cells so most of the time cell death isn't a problem. In fact, too little cell death can lead to cancerous tumours forming – so the right cells dying at the right time is actually vital to staying healthy.

Of the thousand cells that make up a worm like Dave, 131 die. And I was one of the first to study how and why cells die in my worms.
Have you met Dave the Worm?

We now know that our worm cells behave in a very similar way to human cells when it comes to cell death and that many of the same genes are involved.

How did you become interested in Parkinson's?

My interest in Parkinson's actually started on the staircase at my University. I bumped into my colleague Dario who mentioned that he'd started working on 2 of the genes related to rare inherited forms of Parkinson's.

A gene is a short segment of DNA that provides the instructions for making a protein, and proteins are the building blocks our cells are made of and the machines that do the cells work.

For scientists the challenge is to work out how these machines work and what they do inside our cells. And that's where our worms come in.

The first experiment we tried in our worms was removing the 2 important Parkinson's genes (PINK1 and LRRK2) completely. But to our surprise, without the genes our worms wiggled normally, grew happily and developed no Parkinson's-like problems. Quite a disappointment at the time!

By this time I was becoming fascinated with Parkinson's so when I saw that Parkinson's UK were offering research grants to help scientists like me investigate this new and exciting avenue of research I decided to apply for funding to study the condition in my worms.

Luckily for me, worms like Dave have the same type of nerve cells that are lost in the brains of people with Parkinson's. But instead of having millions, the worms only have 8 of these vital cells which we can study in action inside the living animals.

Working with our worms has already helped us understand more about what happens when these dopamine-producing cells start to die and I'm really hopeful that our work will lead to treatments that slow or stop the progression of Parkinson's.

We'll have more to share with you on the blog from Anton this week - so look out for the next installment.