Brains at Work Against Parkinson's Disease
April 18, 2001 (Philadelphia) -- When actor Michael J. Fox retired from the sitcom Spin City last January, he made a commitment to focus his energies on aiding research for Parkinson's disease, an illness he was diagnosed with in 1991. His foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, says a cure for this disabling brain disease can be found in 10 years. So how close are researchers to curing Parkinson's?
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A Parkinson's disease "summit" this month at Thomas Jefferson University brought those coping with the disease face-to-face with top scientists looking for clues about causes of the disease -- and remedies.
All approaches being explored for new Parkinson's disease treatments carry promise, but several fields of research have had major setbacks -- reducing hopes for any imminent, dramatic breakthroughs.
More than 500,000 Americans suffer from Parkinson's disease, and about 50,000 new cases are reported annually, according to the National Institutes of Health. The numbers may be larger than what is reported, because diagnosis -- especially early on -- can be difficult.
Parkinson's is a progressive, long-term brain disease with no cure. Current drug therapies only treat the disease's symptoms, which can include body tremors, a shuffling gait, slowed movements, rigidity, and even difficulty opening the mouth to eat or speak. These problems can prompt additional complications such as depression and anxiety.
Others who suffer from the disease include former Attorney General Janet Reno, Muhammad Ali, and possibly Pope John Paul II.
The disease results from the death of brain cells that control the body's movement, those that produce the chemical dopamine. There are Parkinson's drugs on the market, but their benefit diminishes over time. Once the disease has progressed so much that there is little natural dopamine left in the brain, the medications' effectiveness plummets.
Two highly controversial brain-restorative approaches -- gene therapy and cell transplants -- garner most of the Parkinson's research spotlight. But some researchers are examining ways to protect the brain from losing the cells in the first place.
Jay Schneider, PhD, director of the Parkinson's disease research unit at Thomas Jefferson, says, "Gene therapy and stem cell replacement therapies may still be years away. We still have patients now that we need to take care of."
Schneider's research involves giving patients doses of GM1 ganglioside, a molecule that naturally occurs in the lining of brain cells. Animal and human trials, he says, already suggest that the molecule blocks brain cell death and promotes dopamine production.
"The trick is if you can identify patients early on and keep them in a mild state of the disease," he tells WebMD. "Everyone wants to say, 'I've found the cure for Parkinson's,' but 'cure' is maybe not the word. If we can significantly slow the progression of the disease, to me, that's tantamount to a cure." There are three substances now in human clinical trials for brain protection against Parkinson's, he says.