Stepping Closer to a Parkinson's Cure

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It sneaked up on me.

My sense of smell vanished and I didn't question it. When my handwriting turned illegible, I blamed it on too much typing. But after I started losing my voice and became inexplicably tongue-tied, I phoned a neurologist.

I walked into his office fearing a brain tumor and came out denying his diagnosis: Parkinson's disease.

That was three years, thousands of pills, months of depression and one alternative therapy ago. In some ways I feel better today then when I was diagnosed in February 2005. But I have daily reminders that my brain is running out of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps govern motor performance and can have cognitive impact as well.

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Will Parkinson's defeat me? Maybe not. New research is gradually unearthing clues about this condition. And some scientists are hopeful that new treatments -- and perhaps a cure -- could be closer than we think.

But new treatments require funds. And many of those on the front line of the fight for Parkinson's say the money just isn't keeping up with the work left to be done.

Funding Crucial for a Cure

Fortunately, the funding picture for Parkinson's isn't entirely bleak. On Saturday, in what organizers called the largest grass-roots show of support ever held for Parkinson's patients, an estimated 10,000 people gathered in New York's Central Park for the 14th annual Unity Walk.

The walk, intended to raise money for Parkinson's research, is organized by The Parkinson Alliance, a public charity near Princeton, N.J.

The alliance is hardly a household name, but it delivers big time. The first walk, with 200 attendees, netted $16,000. The 2007 walk raised $1.6 million.

"We hope we can top last year, [fundraising] teams have until June 1 to contribute," said Carol Walton, chief executive of the Parkinson Alliance.

And this year, as in every year since the walk's inception, 100 percent of all donations will go directly to research.

But donations can only go so far. And like many Parkinson's patients, I worry that total funding won't keep pace with the progression of my disease.

Already, federal funding for biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health is falling when adjusted for inflation. And according to Walton, NIH dollars for Parkinson's have actually declined in recent years -- from $240 per patient to about $205.

If there is any silver lining to this dire funding picture, it is that it provides extra motivation for Unity walkers.

"The Unity Walk is a day for the entire Parkinson's community to come together," Walton said. She adds that instead of being in competition with other groups (e.g. the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the Parkinson's Disease Foundation and the Parkinson's Action Network), the Parkinson Alliance distributes the money raised through the Unity Walk to the top Parkinson's organizations -- with the stipulation that the funding must go for research.

Small Step for Parkinson's, Giant Leap for Other Disorders

The benefits of a cure would reach far beyond Parkinson's patients, says John H. Morrison, chair of the Government and Public Affairs Committee for the Society for Neuroscience. He agrees with other experts who believe Parkinson's will be the first neurological disease to be cured.

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