Chris Woods, 44, of Merrimac, N.H., had gone to New Orleans in September 2005 for a month to volunteer following the destruction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the right side of his body began to feel odd.
"There was stiffness in my right arm and hand. Pain and tingling in my right foot," Woods recalled. "It was getting worse rapidly."
Over the course of several months, Woods' doctors considered Lou Gehrig's disease, multiple sclerosis, and a brain tumor as causes for his symptoms before a writing test forced him to face an unwelcome diagnosis.
"When I write with my right hand, my right leg shakes," Woods said.
His neurologist diagnosed Woods, then 41, with early Parkinson's disease, a chronic neurological condition that worsens over time, causing tremors, stiffness and problems with balance and coordination and affects over 1.5 million people in the U.S.
"I guess I knew what was happening, but I didn't know it was connected [to Parkinson's], but it's a telltale sign," Woods said.
While there are several treatments that keep the symptoms of Parkinson's disease at bay, none have been shown to affect the underlying cause of the disease. Now, final results from a closely watched trial of the drug rasagiline (Azilect) in Parkinson's cases suggest the drug may slow patient deterioration, study leaders said, but some outside experts voiced doubts.
"It's the single most important study of the last decade for Parkinson's patients," said Dr. C. Warren Olanow, professor of neurology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the principal investigator of the trial. "It's the first time we've defined a drug that looks like it is disease modifying -- it slows the rate of disease progression."
The 18-month study, called ADAGIO (Attenuation of Disease Progression with Azilect Given Once Daily), randomized 1,176 patients with untreated, early-stage Parkinson's disease into two groups, one that received rasagiline immediately and a second that received rasagiline after nine months.
Patients in the delayed start group receiving 1 mg per day of rasagiline showed a greater level of disability than their counterparts who received 1 mg per day of rasagiline early, according to a report published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The study was funded by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, the company that manufactures rasagiline.
If rasagiline only had an effect on symptoms, the level of disability between the early and late treatment group would have been the same, Olanow said. But since the early treatment group showed a significantly lower level of disability, then the rate of disease was modified and may have been inhibited.
"If it's slowing the disease, the deficit should persist, and that's what happened," said Olanow, who also consults for Teva.
Woods, who participated in the ADAGIO study, said he had an overall positive experience taking rasagiline and credits his continued good health to proper medication, exercise, and a positive attitude.
"I can't say it hasn't slowed me down at all," said Woods, noting his right hand is still stiff. "It hasn't gotten better, certainly, but it hasn't gotten significantly worse."