Here at the SoPD we understand and are deeply sympathetic to the frustration felt by the Parkinson’s community regarding the idea of ‘200 years and still no cure’.
As research scientists, we are in the trench everyday – fighting the good fight – trying to find ways of alleviating this terrible condition. And some of us are also in the clinics, interacting with sufferers and their families, listening to their stories and trying to help. While we do not deal directly with the day-to-day trials of living with Parkinson’s disease, we are keenly aware of many of the issues and are fully invested in trying to correct this condition.
We do feel, however, that it is important to put some context into that ‘200 years’ time point that we are observing this week. It is too easy for people to think “wow, 200 years and still no cure?”
In our previous post – made in collaboration with Prof Frank Church of the Journey with Parkinson’s blog – we listed the major historical milestones and discoveries made in the Parkinson’s disease field during the last 200 years.
The most striking feature of that time line, however, is how just little actually happened during the first 100 years.
In fact for most of that period, Parkinson’s disease wasn’t even called ‘Parkinson’s disease’.
Of the 48 events that we covered on that time line, 37 of them have occurred in the last 50 years (26 since 2000).
Taking this line of thought one step further, 2017 is also the 20 year anniversary of the discovery of alpha synuclein‘s association with Parkinson’s disease. And what a remarkable 20 years that has been. In 1997, a group of researcher at the National institute of Health led by Robert Nussbaum reported the first genetic mutation in the alpha synuclein gene that infers vulnerability to Parkinson’s disease.
Since then, we have:
- identified multiple additional mutations within that same gene that increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
- determined which forms of alpha synuclein are toxic.
- identified alpha synuclein as an important component of Lewy bodies – the dense clusters of protein found in the Parkinsonian brain.
- discovered numerous methods by which alpha synuclein can be passed between cells – potentially aiding in the spread of Parkinson’s disease.
- developed and validated models of Parkinson’s disease based on manipulations of alpha synuclein (including numerous genetically engineered mice, viral over-expression models, etc).
- identified alpha synuclein in the lining of the gut of people with Parkinson’s disease and this has aided us in developing new theories as to how the condition may start.
- set up and run numerous clinical trials targeting alpha synuclein (and we eagerly await the results of those trials).
- published over 6200 scientific papers (don’t believe me? Click here) – that’s over 300 publications per year!
Alpha synuclein protein. Source: Wikipedia
And the truly amazing part? All of these particular achievements are only dealing with just the one gene: alpha synuclein.
Since the identification of the alpha synuclein mutations, we have subsequently discovered genetic mutations in over 20 other genes that increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. And we have conducted the same activities/experiments for most of those genes as we have for alpha synuclein.
For example, in 2004 we discovered that people with genetic mutations in a gene called glucocerebrosidase (or GBA) had an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. In 2016, just 12 years after that discovery we have started a clinical trial designed specifically for those people (Click here for more on this).
Source: Parkinson’s UK
We here at the SoPD are fully supportive of campaigns like #WeWontWait, and this post was not written (nor meant to be taken) as an excuse response to the ‘200 years and no cure’ frustration. I can understand how it may be read that way, but I did not know how else to write it. And I thought it needed to be written.
The point of this entire post is that those 200 years need to be put into context.
And while all of these words aren’t going to make life easier for someone living with Parkinson’s to deal with their situation, in addition to raising awareness this week I think it is important for the Parkinson’s community to also understand just how far we have come, and how fast we are currently progressing.
The question can be asked: will this be the last major anniversary we acknowledge with regards to Parkinson’s disease?
I sincerely think that there is cause to hope that it is.
Let me finish with a personal note:
I have a good friend – let’s call him Matt.
As a young boy, Matt remembers his grandfather having Parkinson’s disease. He remembers growing up watching the trials and tribulations that the old man went through with the condition. There were basically no treatment options when Matt’s grandfather was diagnosed and little in the way of support for the family. His grandfather’s body simply froze up as the disease progressed. L-dopa probably only became available to Matt’s grandfather during the latter stages of the disease.
Four years ago Matt’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Thanks to scientific advances, however, Matt’s dad now has a wide range of treatment options on the medication side of things. The disease can be managed so that he can still play his golf and enjoy his retirement – in a way that his own father never could. He also has numerous surgical options once those medications lose their effectiveness (eg. deep brain stimulation, Pallidotomy, etc). The chances are very likely that Matt’s father will pass on by natural causes before he requires many of those additional options.
This is the progress that we have made.
But there is still a lot of work to be done of course.
During a lunch shortly after his father’s diagnosis, Matt looked squarely across the table at me. Me, the Parkinson’s researcher. All of the usual jovial nature was missing from his face and he simply muttered the words ‘hurry up’.
Whether he was speaking for his father, himself or his own young kids, I understood where his words were coming from and the sentiment.
And, as this post and the previous post point out, we are hurrying up.
The banner for today’s post was sourced from BMO