Parkinson's research shows promise
Imagine, if you will, that there's an aromatic cup of coffee sitting on the table in front of you. Smells good, doesn't it. So good, you decide to take a sip. You reach out to grasp the cup but your arm veers to the right, missing the cup by inches.
This is an oversimplification, but if you have Parkinson's disease, like the actor Michael J. Fox who's become a national spokesman, it's an all-too-real scenario.
Researchers know that Parkinson's disease occurs when nerve cells in the brain fail to produce enough of a chemical called dopamine, which alerts the brain that movement is desired. Without the proper amount of dopamine, the signals become garbled and muscle movement becomes erratic according to the website, WebMD.
The four main symptoms of the disease according to the website are:
•Tremor, which means shaking or trembling in the hands, arms or legs.
•Problems with balance or walking.
An estimated one million people in the United States live with Parkinson's disease, which is chronic and progressive according to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. There is no cure for the disease and doctors treating Parkinson's prescribe medications to control the progression of the disease to allow their patients to have a better quality of life.
Like other diseases, research continues to understand Parkinson's disease.
"There is a significant amount of research underway trying to understand the cause and trying to cure Parkinson's disease," said Dr. James Beck, director of research programs at the Parkinson's Disease Foundation.
For example, Beck said, "There is a search for biomarkers which may allow for the identification of Parkinson's disease sooner. For instance, one recent study found that people with Parkinson's disease develop eye tremors whether early or late into their disease and whether they were on medication or not. It will be interesting to see if further research finds this a quick and easy way to identify people who may be at risk of Parkinson's disease. Perhaps a routine eye exam may one day include a test for Parkinson's disease."
Another current focus of the research into Parkinson's concerns a protein called alpha-synuclein at the center of the disease.
"This protein, when it becomes misfolded, like a crumpled piece of paper, clumps together and can cause the brain cells lost in Parkinson's disease to die," Beck said. "Scientists are looking at ways to prevent the protein from getting crumpled and if it does get crumpled, figuring out ways for the body to get rid of it, which it currently does not do well."
Closer, Beck said, is the potential of using gene therapy to help control many of the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. He points to a recent Oxford Biomedica study that showed positive results in early clinical trials of a gene therapy.
"These will not be cures but may represent a better way of managing one's disease," Beck said.
The foundation itself is engaged in funding research to understand the genetics of Parkinson's disease, understanding its nonmotor features, researching identifying biomarkers, and research into pluripotent stem cells.
Farther on the horizon, Beck said, is research into the use "of induced pluripotent stem cells" taken from the skin tissue from someone living with Parkinson's disease to develop patient-specific models of the disease. This research, it's hoped, will lead to the development of another new therapy, albeit not a cure, to deal with the disease.
"The future of Parkinson's disease is moving beyond drugs to control the movement that is lost, but also seeking to help other issues that people living with the disease experience -- the so-called nonmotor features such as walking and balance problems and nonarthritic pain among others," Beck said.
More information is available at the foundation's website, www.pdf.org, or by calling 800-457-6676.