Stepping Closer to a Parkinson's Cure

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"As soon as we solve one neurodegenerative disorder, it's going to give us huge insights into all the others, including Alzheimer's," said Morrison, who was in Washington last week lobbying for an inflation-proof increase in the NIH budget.

He adds that the social costs associated with roughly 1½ million Parkinson's patients -- plus an estimated 5 million Alzheimer's patients -- will only intensify as a longer-living population confronts disease associated with the aging brain. "It could have a crippling effect on our society," Morrison said.

But money isn't the only challenge.

"More money will be put to good use in battling Parkinson's," said Dr. Hamilton Moses III of the Alerion Institute.

But Moses believes progress would quicken if the biomedical research community also focused on increasing its productivity. "Productivity is often an unfamiliar concept to the scientific researcher," he said.

Carol Walton agrees; so does Katie Hood, CEO of the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

Since 2000 that foundation has funded more than $120 million worth of Parkinson's research projects, and Hood says it's not business as usual.

"We are very demanding funders," she said. "We don't consider our grants awards; we consider them investments."

This is evidenced by the fact that the foundation treats these awards as "portfolios" with very aggressive, multidisciplinary reviews. Hood notes that compared to the National Institutes of Health, the Fox foundation has a streamlined application process, mandates milestones in every grant and emphasizes facilitating dialogue among disparate researchers.

"We bring together scientists who might otherwise be considered competitors, enabling them to help each other in problem-solving and brainstorming."

All this is in the service of productivity, shrinking the lag time between lab discovery and clinical application. Hood says the Fox foundation is also developing a worldwide Parkinson's disease online research consortium to help meet the actor's stated goal: to cure Parkinson's within the next 10 years. Will it happen?

Hoping Against Time

Nearly every day, my inbox flashes a Google News alert about some new finding, study, theory, clinical trial or compelling anecdote that offers a fresh dollop of hope. But for many Parkinson's patients, time has already run out. Parkinson's drugs eventually lose their effectiveness, leaving many patients with constant tremors, spasms and shaking. Some are housebound and confined to wheelchairs or beds, and they often suffer cognitive impairment as well.

So far I have been fortunate. My primary medication, a drug that stimulates dopamine production, has slowed the progress of my symptoms, which can vary dramatically from patient to patient. In addition to the signature muscle movements, these symptoms include profound personality changes and a "facial mask" -- what my wife lovingly refers to as "the Lurch look."

Less talked about but also prevalent are some combination of sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, drooling, loss of voice, constipation, cognitive impairment -- plus the overall stress of moving in slow motion in a world now operating at nano speed.

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