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Parkinson’s gene discovery lands graduate share of $3m prize

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Published on 26 September 2023

Dr Andrew Singleton
Dr Andrew Singleton

One of the world’s leading researchers into neurological disorders who began his career at the University of Sunderland has been named as a recipient of the prestigious 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. 

Almost 30 years ago, Dr Andrew Singleton achieved a First-Class degree in Applied Physiology at Sunderland, and today he’s been awarded a prize, dubbed the “Oscars of Science,” for his groundbreaking research into Parkinson’s disease. 

The Breakthrough Prize recognises outstanding contributions to science that advance our understanding and treatment of human disease. This year, three Life Sciences prizes were awarded to eight scientists whose research has transformed the treatment landscape from cancer to rare diseases. 

Dr Singleton, Director at the National Institutes of Health Center for Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias (CARD), in Maryland, USA, will share the $3 million award with two other researchers for identifying risk genes for Parkinson’s disease. In addition to his work at CARD, he leads a worldwide team of researchers who study the genetics behind Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders. 

The Breakthrough Prize honors discoveries made by Singleton’s team that identified pathogenic variants in a specific gene, as a significant cause of the disease. Their findings have helped researchers understand the role that this gene may play in the healthy and diseased brain, as well as develop several potential treatments for Parkinson’s. 

He says: “I am of course, incredibly honored, but also thankful, for my family, the researchers I’ve been fortunate to work with, the patients who volunteer for these studies, and of course the University of Sunderland and the faculty there who started me on this path” 

Congratulating Dr Singleton on his award, Sir David Bell, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of University of Sunderland, said: “This is an outstanding achievement which, quite rightly, has garnered considerable coverage here in the UK; much of which – pleasingly – has highlighted Andrew’s time as an undergraduate at the University of Sunderland. 

“Naturally, we are very proud of Andrew and his remarkable scientific success in an area of research that has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people living with Parkinson’s. The Breakthrough Prize is testament to his groundbreaking work. 

Having graduated from Sunderland in 1995, Andrew's career began with further study, firstly with a PhD at Newcastle University, followed immediately by a move to Florida to work at the Mayo Clinic on the genetics of neurodegenerative diseases. Then in 2001 Dr Singleton moved to Bethesda in Maryland to set up a lab. 

"During my first degree I had taken a sandwich placement year, and Prof Pullen set me up with a job in a lab in Newcastle working for the Medical Research Council on the genetics of Alzheimer's disease," he explains. "I went back to this lab after finishing at Sunderland and pursued a PhD in neuroscience." 

He has since trained dozens of scientists, published more than 700 peer-reviewed research articles, and has been broadly recognized for his work, including with two NIH Director’s Awards. 

In 2017 Dr Singleton returned to Sunderland to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Science, in recognition of his pioneering work in the understanding of neurological health disorders. 

At the time he said: “I’ve been lucky enough to do a job that I love. A job that has allowed me to travel the world, to work with the smartest and most dedicated scientists, and to feel like I’ve made an impact. 

“We’ve made incredible progress in diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and I am now more sure than ever that we will find a cure. 

“I am increasingly thankful to the University of Sunderland for helping me start my journey, and for this incredible honour. I love this place.” 

Singleton has served at the National Institute of Health since 2001. Over the years, he has also studied the genetics behind a variety of other neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, dystonia, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.