ATLANTA — As Johnny Isakson's health declined in recent years and he was forced to retire from the Senate in 2019, he worked to ensure his legacy would include an enduring fight against the disease he was battling: Parkinson's.
Isakson died Sunday at 76 after a roughly six-year fight with the disease. Earlier this year his beloved alma mater, the University of Georgia, announced a position that will keep the fight going long into the future.
The school announced in February it had established the John H. “Johnny” Isakson Chair for Parkinson’s Research and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar position after reaching a goal of $4.5 million in private funds, the last of which came from none other than Isakson himself.
A month later, UGA announced the first Isakson Chair scholar, Anumantha Kanthasamy, who was described at the time of his announcement as "an internationally renowned researcher of Parkinson's disease and related neurodegenerative disorders."
According to UGA, the position involves "teaching, research and public service" as well as being the director of the Center for Brain Science and Neurological Disorders.
When UGA announced the position was fully funded, Isakson reflected on the outpouring of support he'd seen to make it a reality.
“I’m very proud to play a part in this effort,” he said. “Of course, I’m honored that this position would carry my name, but more than anything, I am glad to see so many willing to give so much for this important cause. My deepest gratitude goes out to everyone who gave.”
Kanthasamy, whose work according to the school includes identifying biomarkers for the early detection of Parkinson's, has already begun to make his mark.
Earlier this week, UGA announced he'd been elected to the prestigious Fellows of the National Academy of Inventors. According to the school, NAI Fellows "must be involved in creating or facilitating inventions that make a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and welfare of society" and recognition as an NAI Fellow "is the highest professional distinction awarded solely to academic inventors."
When he was announced as the Isakson Chair in March, Kanthasamy paid homage to the man for whom his position is named.
"Sen. Johnny Isakson had a very distinguished career, helping the people of Georgia and Iowa (Kanthasamy also holds a position at Iowa State University) and the entire nation, and I have dedicated myself to helping patients and people’s lives,” he said. “The University of Georgia is in the top class of land-grant institutions with strong support for research, and I’ve known many people from UGA over my career. I’m very honored to be appointed as the first Johnny Isakson Chair.”
His past research includes work on "underlying molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in neural degeneration caused by Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases" as well as "the role played by neurotoxins, particularly certain pesticides and metals, in disease onset and progression, establishing a causative relationship between Parkinson’s patients’ environment and their genetic predisposition."
He has started two companies, PK Biosciences and Probiome Therapeutics, to help advance drug development out of his research
Kanthasamy's ongoing work, university official S. Jack Hu said back in March, will "honor Senator Isakson’s legacy by making a difference in the lives of people around the world.”