We had the pleasure to interview Dr. Kuldip Dave, the Director of Research Programs at The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF), to discuss his career path and the work the Foundation is doing to accelerate research and drug development for Parkinson’s disease (PD) as it relates to the microbiome.
Dr. Dave shared some of his childhood memories, where he was a good student and always liked science - but that not all sciences were attractive to him. He was specifically drawn to biology with understanding how the body works, how the different vital systems come about to integrate with each other, and how it all works in a homeostatic environment.
He completed his undergraduate work at Rutgers University as a biology major and ended up taking a few pharmacology courses as part of a psychology minor. Indeed, he had wanted to take psychology classes that were geared towards physiology which led to courses such as physiology psychology, drugs & behavior, and human perceptions & sensation. Two of the classes also included behavioral pharmacology and neuropsychopharmacology looking at how different disorders were associated with the neurotransmitters and the pharmacology around it.
These classes were his first exposure to pharmacology and they ended up being two of his favorite courses during his time at Rutgers. It was because of this that he began down a path that led to completing an internship during his fourth year for one of those pharmacology professors and later to his PhD in pharmacology and physiology at MCP-Hahnemann University. “You never know what tickles your brain,” Dave says expanding on how a small portion of his minor ended up shaping so much of his career.
Dr. Dave went on to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at Adolor Corporation, a small biotech company of 100 people at the time, that he credits with giving him the exposure to drug discovery field. The company was focused on studying pain and inflammation and was the perfect environment to learn about target validation, screening, and lead optimization among other topics that were not taught to him in graduate school.
After Adolor, he went on to work at Wyeth. Wyeth was working on neuroendocrine research in women’s health, and more specifically, it was looking at the menopausal effects on psychiatry and neuropsychiatric syndromes like anxiety and depression. His work there was intricately involved in looking at hormonal and neurotransmitter pharmacology in search of drugs to counteract these symptoms.
By 2010 he was, like so many of us at some point in our lives, trying to figure out what to do next. He turned to, of all places, LinkedIn to see what someone with his background and experience could do in the nonprofit world. It was through the networking platform that he came across The Michael J. Fox Foundation.
“I learned that the research team at MJFF are not just scientists executing on what a Science Advisory Board recommends. At the Foundation, internal scientists do more than that by identifying gaps in research, developing strategy and strategic initiatives for funding, and then executing on that funding initiative,” Dave said explaining on how eye-opening it was to learn more about the Foundation.
At the time, there wasn’t a job currently available at the Foundation, but just four months later, Dave applied for a position, came in for an interview, and was made an offer the next day.
He started at the Foundation as an Associate Director and feels the first year was really an introductory period to his role at MJFF. He learned about how the Foundation provides funding, how to put key opinion leaders (KOL) in a room together to have a discussion to identify gaps in research, and how to develop an RFA. “I did not even know what RFA stood for and I had to ask someone what it was - they told me it was a Request for Application,” he remembers looking back at this time of trying to catch up with many new acronyms and processes. He continues by explaining, “the best part of the Foundation is that once we fund research we don’t just let go of that project. It’s not like we write a check and sign a contract and that’s it… we become project managers on it and we see that project from initiation to completion. We become champions of that project conducting whatever check-ins are needed based on the milestones. We then stay in tune with that project and ensure it stays on track. We help it to overcome any roadblocks it has or look to see if we can broker an introduction with another KOL that can help them overcome whatever issue or obstacle they may be facing.”
An area he began to focus on early in his time there was around the research tools that scientist needed. A portion of the funding from MJFF, and other sources such as the NIH, were being used for scientists to acquire tools such as antibodies, proteins, bio vectors, animal models, and compounds. There were roadblocks with this system as it prohibited sharing across labs or if done in academia it wouldn’t allow the industry to have access to them. The Foundation decided to become proactive and use contract research organizations to make some of those tools themselves and, with Dave driving the program, there are now over 100 different products that are manufactured by 15 different vendors which are low cost and available to order via the online catalog.
Since then he has taken on the two priorities of the Foundation for the strategic overviews of both the alpha-synuclein and GBA portfolios. They are looking at mutations in the genes that have shown an increased risk for PD and are funding smaller companies which need help to push them into the clinical space. Throughout the three perspectives of biomarkers, biology, and therapeutic, he has created a 5-year strategic roadmap where 3 of the 30 programs that were supported are now in the clinic and many others that were supported are now partnered up with larger pharma showing the success of removing the risk from alpha-synuclein discovery research.
When asked about any personal choices that are influenced by the research he chuckles almost guiltily about the large burrito sitting in the next room waiting for him. Dave tries to be vegetarian as much as possible as he feels it is a healthy diet having been influenced by the cultural and religious perspectives he was raised with. He admits that this is easier to maintain this lifestyle while living in places like New York and California. “I think as a father of two and in my forties… I am starting to be more aware of what I eat and how it impacts my wellbeing,” he says. He talks about how as a scientist there is always the thought in the back of his mind on how one’s environment and lifestyle can have an effect on brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and so many others. He has also chosen to take supplements with omega 3 fatty acids and vitamins to help combat the habits that are less healthy with the commute between New Jersey to New York and the busy lifestyle we all have in this day and age.
It was truly a pleasure speaking with Dr. Kuldip Dave on the experiences that can shape one’s path in life to the exciting research that leaves us looking forward to the future findings and the impact it may have for patients with Parkinson’s disease.
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