Improving Patient Education – Introducing Eirwen Malin


Today’s post is something a bit different from our usual fodder.

Here at SoPD HQ, we like to throw our support behind worthy projects. And we were recently contacted by Eirwen Malin regarding an idea that we were genuinely passionate about: Improving patient education

Eirwen is being supported by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and in the second half of the year she will travel to the USA and then later to Argentina to find new ideas for Patient Education.

In today’s post, we are handing over the keys to the car to Eirwen and we will let her explain the project that she is about to undertake. The goal of this post is to get feedback, ideas and thoughts about the plans for her project. We also encourage all our readers to follow Eirwen (contact details at the bottom of the post) as she undertakes this exciting endeavour.

UntitledHello, this is me – Eirwen Malin. I’m not prepared to own up to quite how many years I worked in the Third sector in Wales but take it from me (and my photo) quite a lot. I worked mostly trying to influence policy and practice, advocating on behalf of a range of different groups and issues, researching, running demonstration projects, that type of thing. Trying to get the issues heard above the clamour and competing for funding which would hopefully make a difference.

In 2014 I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and life changed a lot.

It took me a while to realise it but apart from threatening my physical voice, (it’s suggested that 75-90% of people with Parkinson’s have some sort of voice, speech or communication difficulties, see here for more information) having Parkinson’s gave me a new and more powerful voice. I could now speak with the authority of “lived experience”, which might help me make a difference for me and my fellow Parkies.

My own experience of diagnosis was not good. I’d been referred to a neurologist to “put my mind at rest”, so it was completely unexpected. I was not diagnosed by a PD specialist and had to be referred on to a clinic, I was told what I needed was information and then sent off to wait for an appointment with no phone number, website address, fact sheet, nothing!

While I waited, for nearly 6 months, I found masses of information, some of it well expressed and clear, some incomprehensible, some coming from authoritative sources, some from people who were living with the condition, some contradictory, some pseudo-scientific, some completely off the wall yet plausible, in short a potential minefield! Now I am a reasonably competent person, who quite enjoys and is able to read and make sense of research papers, understand the statistics, weigh up the arguments and generally make sense of what’s available. However lots of people with Parkinson’s will not be like me.

So, now I thought maybe I could use my new voice to shout out for the need for Patient Education.

I signed up as a volunteer facilitator for Parkinson’s UK’s Self-Management Programme.


It’s an excellent course, based on work long championed by Dr Kate Lorig at Stanford:


I have seen it help people to gain confidence and regain a measure of control over their lives. I would thoroughly recommend it, however, 6 half day sessions can’t provide the on-going information about medical, social and lifestyle adjustments that are required to live as well as possible with Parkinson’s. Sometimes one needs almost daily updates to manage the complex and peskily changing symptoms. After all the patient is the only one who is there 24/7/365! They must know where to find information and importantly what questions to ask. I meet far too many people desperately seeking guidance.

The opportunity arose to apply for a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship, as the strapline says the idea is “Travel to learn – return to inspire”.

Logo + image resized_11

Established in 1965, following the death of Sir Winston Churchill, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust hands out 150 fellowships each year providing a unique opportunity for UK citizens to travel overseas with the goal of bringing back fresh ideas and new solutions to today’s issues, for the benefit of others in the UK.

At the end of a quite lengthy application process which has whittled over 1000 application down to about 150 Fellowships I feel very honoured, “Yippee”, to have been successful in the Medical Practice and Education category alongside a CEO of an NHS Trust, Doctors, Nurses, Researchers etc, Yikes!

My quest is to find new ideas for Patient Education. I am focussing particularly in the field of degenerative neurological conditions. This area is particularly tricky because I think it’s reasonable to say that even the experts still have much to learn and the multi-faceted nature of the conditions and their symptoms result in the need for a team of medical practitioners to support the patient making it even more difficult to provide consistent information. The patient has to know whats going on.

For my fellowship, I will be travelling to USA and Argentina.


Yippee, exciting trips, but once again Yikes, the journeys are long, I’ll get even stiffer, and I don’t do well in crowds or queues. It’s a good job that my partner can come and help with the stressful bits.

I’ve tried to cover as many perspectives as I can think of but I’d welcome ideas from readers. I’ll try to fit them in.

A bit more detail on the US trip July-August 2017.

New York

A meeting with the Michael J Fox Foundation. I found lots of information on their website, it seems like a good place to start.


I’m hoping to visit New York University’s Electronic Media Patient Education Initiative but still waiting for confirmation

I’m excited to be going to visit Dance for PD in Brooklyn. They do some fantastic work getting people moving and I’m sure there is much to learn.


I’ll be talking with the charismatic David Leventhal and other staff to ask how they see their educational role. Most important I want to get feedback from their participants. I have developed a one-woman storytelling performance Sorting the Sock Drawer which I will use to stimulate discussion.

San Francisco area

I’m going to see Dr Kate Lorig (mentioned above) and hoping to talk to some people who will be at Stanford on a one-week course.

University of California San Francisco Parkinson’s Disease Clinic and Research Centre. Really clearly written information on their website that I wish I had found earlier.


By the way I’ll be packing my cheesecloth tunic and flares – it’s the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” with apologies to younger readers who don’t remember!


I will meet Professor Cynthia McRae, a behavioural psychologist who focusses on the impact of non-medical symptoms such as quality of life, depression, loneliness, and other psychological factors that are often associated with Parkinson’s disease, but are not always included within medical research.


Professor Cynthia McRae

She said “If there is such a thing as a good place to have Parkinson’s then Denver is it!” and introduced me to the Parkinson’s Association of the Rockies. They have so much going on I shall spend some time with them. Once again I’ll be using my performance to stimulate a discussion.


A flying visit to spend a day with the Parkinson’s Voice Project, their mantra about people with Parkinson’s living “with intent” really speaks to me.


Pittsburgh and around

University of Pittsburgh Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases to be confirmed

I will visit the Wheeling Hospital Parkinson’s Education Centre. Also at Wheeling I will be filling a gap in the schedule to speak with general medical practitioners to ask about issues for them in helping patients with neurodegenerative conditions

Finally Health Plan, in St Clairesville Ohio. Health Plan is a not-for profit health insurance provider that calls itself a health maintenance organisation. It will be interesting to get a business perspective on Patient Education.


Alongside the formal meetings I hope to just talk to people I meet, tell them what I am doing and get their views. In the end that might be as important as the planned programme.

Planning for Argentina in Oct-Nov still to be finalised.

So once again Yippee it’s going to be fascinating and exciting but Yikes I really do hope I can come home with the goods and help influence the provision of a better system of educating patients than I encountered. I feel the sense of responsibility to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust who have invested faith and funds in my idea and my ability to deliver and even more so to my fellow Parkies diagnosed or not for whom I’d like to make a difference.

I’ll be posting activities, photos, videos of the formal meetings and the more touristy parts of the trips on facebook you can follow my activities, send me messages there os send messages via e-mail

Parkinson’s 101 (care of Parkinson’s UK)

In December 2016, Parkinson’s UK produced a wonderful series of video explaining some of the basics of Parkinson’s disease. They are a really useful resources for folks who would like to better understand this condition, but are not really interested in the hard-core science. You can find them on Parkinson’s UK Youtube channel, but we present a couple of them here to give you a taster. Enjoy.

1. What is Parkinson’s disease?

2. How does the medication work?

3. How are future drugs developed?

We should also point out that other Parkinson’s disease group, such as the Michael J Fox Foundation also have Youtube channels as well. They too present some great videos, such as:

1. An explanation of the clinical trial process:

2. The process of getting a drug from the lab bench to the market:


Niacin rich diets for Pink flies


Performer Miley Cyrus says that “Pink isn’t just a colour, it’s an attitude!”

Whether that is true or not is not for us to say.

What we can tell you is that ‘Pink’ is also a gene which is associated with Parkinson’s disease. And not just any form of Parkinson’s disease – people with early onset Parkinson’s (diagnosed before 40 years of age) often have specific mutations in this gene. And recently there has been new research published which may help these particular individuals.

Today’s post will review the new research and look at what it means for people with early onset Parkinson’s disease.


The actor Michael J Fox requires no introduction.

Especially in the Parkinson’s community where his Michael J Fox Foundation has revolutionised the funding and supporting of Parkinson’s disease research (INCREDIBLE FACT: Since 2000, The Michael J. Fox Foundation has funded more than US$450 MILLION of Parkinson’s disease research) and is leading the charge in the search for a cure for this condition.

Mr Fox has become one of the foremost figures in raising awareness about the disease that he himself was diagnosed with at just 29 years of age.

Wow, so young?

It is a common mistake to consider Parkinson’s disease a condition of the aged portion of society. While the average age of diagnosis floats around 65 years of age, it is only an average. The overall range of that extends a great distance in both directions.

Being diagnosed so young, Mr Fox would be considered to have early onset Parkinson’s disease.

What is early onset Parkinson’s disease?

Broadly speaking there are three basic divisions of Parkinson’s disease across different age ranges:

  • Juvenile-onset Parkinson disease – onset before age 20 years
  • Early-onset Parkinson disease – before age 50 years
  • Late-onset Parkinson disease – after age 50 years is considered

The bulk of people with Parkinson’s disease are considered ‘late-onset’. The Juvenile-onset version of the condition, on the other hand, is extremely rare but cases do pop up regularly in the media (For example, click here). We have previously written about Juvenile-onset Parkinson disease (Click here for that post).

Early-onset Parkinson disease is more common than the juvenile form, but still only makes up a fraction of the overall Parkinsonian population. Some of those affected call themselves 1 in 20 as this is considered by some the ratio of early-onset Parkinson’s compared to late-onset.

How prevalent is early onset Parkinson’s?

In 2009, Parkinson’s UK published a report on the prevalence of Parkinson’s disease in the UK.

Using the General Practice Research Database (GPRD), which houses information about 7.2% of the UK population (or 3.4 million people in 2009), Parkinson’s UK found that the frequency of Parkinson’s disease in the general public was 27 cases in every 10,000 people (or 1 person in every 370 of the general population). The prevalence is higher in men (31 in every 10,000 compared to 24 in every 10,000 among females)


Source: ParkinsonsUK

As you can see from the table above, the number of people affected by early onset Parkinson’s disease is small when compared to the late-onset population.

Officially, the prevalence of early onset Parkinson’s in Europe is estimated to be 1 in every 8,000 people in the general population (Source: Orphanet). This makes the population of affected individuals approximately 5-10 % of all people with Parkinson’s. Hence the 1 in 20 label mentioned above.

Like older onset Parkinson’s, males are more affected than females (1.7 males to every 1 female case). In addition, women generally develop the disease two years later than men.

So what does ‘Pink’ have to do with early onset Parkinson’s?

First, let’s have a look at ‘Pink’ the gene.

PTEN-induced putative kinase 1 (or PINK1; also known as PARK6) is a gene that is thought to protect cells. Specifically, Pink1 is believed to interact with another Parkinson’s disease-associated protein called Parkin (also known as PARK2). Pink1 grabs Parkin and causes it to bind to dysfunctional mitochondria. Parkin then signals to the rest of the cell for that particular mitochondria to be disposed of. This is an essential part of the cell’s garbage disposal system.

Hang on a second. Remind me again: what are mitochondria?

Mitochondria are the power house of each cell. They keep the lights on. Without them, the lights go out and the cell dies.


Mitochondria and their location in the cell. Source: NCBI

You may remember from high school biology class that mitochondria are bean-shaped objects within the cell. They convert energy from food into Adenosine Triphosphate (or ATP). ATP is the fuel which cells run on. Given their critical role in energy supply, mitochondria are plentiful and highly organised within the cell, being moved around to wherever they are needed.

When a cell is stressed by a toxic chemical, the organisation of mitochondria breaks down (as is shown in the image below, where everything except mitochondria (in green) and the nucleus (blue) has been made invisible:


Mitochondria (green) in health cells (left) and in unhealthy cells (right).
The nucleus of the cell is in blue. Source: Salk Institute

In normal, healthy cells, PINK1 is absorbed by mitochondria and eventually degraded. In unhealthy cells, however, this process is inhibited and PINK1 starts to accumulate on the outer surface of the mitochondria. There, it starts grabbing the PARKIN protein. This pairing is a signal to the cell that this particular mitochondria is not healthy and needs to be removed.


Pink1 and Parkin in normal (right) and unhealthy (left) situations. Source: Hindawi

The process by which mitochondria are removed is called autophagy. Autophagy is an absolutely essential function in a cell. Without it, old proteins will pile up making the cell sick and eventually it dies. Through the process of autophagy, the cell can break down the old protein, clearing the way for fresh new proteins to do their job.

Think of autophagy as the waste disposal process of the cell.

So why is Pink1 important to Parkinson’s disease?

In 2004 this research article was published:


Title: Hereditary early-onset Parkinson’s disease caused by mutations in PINK1
Authors: Valente EM, Abou-Sleiman PM, Caputo V, Muqit MM, Harvey K, Gispert S, Ali Z, Del Turco D, Bentivoglio AR, Healy DG, Albanese A, Nussbaum R, González-Maldonado R, Deller T, Salvi S, Cortelli P, Gilks WP, Latchman DS, Harvey RJ, Dallapiccola B, Auburger G, Wood NW.
Journal: Science. 2004 May 21;304(5674):1158-60.
PMID: 15087508

The researchers in this study were the first to report that mutations in the Pink1 gene were associated with increased risk of Parkinson’s disease. They found three families in Europe that exhibited a very similar kind of Parkinson’s disease and by analysing their DNA they determined that mutations in the Pink1 gene were directly linked to the condition.

They also looked at where in the cell Pink1 protein was located, noting the close contact with the mitochondria. In addition, they noted that the normal Pink1 protein provided the cell with protection against a toxic chemical, while the mutated version of Pink1 did not. These findings led the researchers to conclude that Pink1 and mitochondria may be involved in the underlying mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease.

And this initial study was quickly followed up 7 months later by this report:


Title: Analysis of the PINK1 gene in a large cohort of cases with Parkinson disease.
Authors: Rogaeva E, Johnson J, Lang AE, Gulick C, Gwinn-Hardy K, Kawarai T, Sato C, Morgan A, Werner J, Nussbaum R, Petit A, Okun MS, McInerney A, Mandel R, Groen JL, Fernandez HH, Postuma R, Foote KD, Salehi-Rad S, Liang Y, Reimsnider S, Tandon A, Hardy J, St George-Hyslop P, Singleton AB.
Journal: Arch Neurol. 2004 Dec;61(12):1898-904.
PMID: 15596610

In this study, the researchers analysed the Pink1 gene in 289 people with Parkinson’s disease and 80 neurologically normal control subjects. They identified 27 genetic variations, including a mutation in 2 unrelated early-onset Parkinson disease patients. They concluded that autosomal recessive mutations in PINK1 result in a rare form of early-onset Parkinson’s disease.

What does autosomal recessive mean?

Autosomal recessive means two copies of an abnormal gene must be present in order for the disease or trait to develop. That is to say, both parents will be carrying one copy of the mutation.

Mutations in the Pink1 gene have now been thoroughly analysed, with many mutations identified (the red and blue arrows in the image below). It is important, however, to understand that not all of those mutations are associated with Parkinson’s disease.


Looks complicated. Genetic variations in the Pink1 gene. Source: APS

So how do mutations in the Pink1 gene cause Parkinson’s disease?

We believe that the mutations in the Pink1 DNA result in malformed Pink1 protein. This results in Pink1 not being able to do what it is supposed to do. You will remember what we wrote above: Pink1 grabs Parkin when mitochondria get sick and Parkin signals for that mitochondria is be disposed of. Well, in the absence a properly functioning Pink1, we believe that there is a build up of sick mitochondria and this is what kills off the cell. All Parkinson’s disease-associated mutations in the Pink1 gene inhibit the ability of Pink1 grab parkin (Click here for more on this).

And we see this in flies.


Flies. Source: TheConservation

Flies (or drosophila) are a regular feature in biological research. Given their short life cycle, they can be used to quickly determine the necessity and function of particular genes. Yes, they are slightly different to us, but quite often the same biological principles apply.

Take Pink1 for example.

When scientists mutate the Pink1 gene in flies, it leads to the loss of flight muscles and male sterility. These effects both appear to be due to the kind of mitochondrial issues we were discussing above. One really amazing fact is that the human version of Pink1 can actually rescue the flies that have their Pink1 gene mutated. This is remarkable because across evolution genes begin to differ slightly resulting in some major differences by the time you get to humans. The fact that Pink1 is similar between both flies and humans shows that it has been relatively well conserved (functionally at least).

And given that we see similarities in the Pink1 gene and function between flies and humans, then perhaps we can apply what we see in flies to humans with regards to treatments.

Which brings us (finally!) to the research paper we wanted to look at today:


Title: Enhancing NAD+ salvage metabolism is neuroprotective in a PINK1 model of Parkinson’s disease<
Authors: Lehmann S, Loh SH, Martins LM.
Journal: Biol Open. 2016 Dec 23. pii: bio.022186.
PMID: 28011627              (this article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)

In this study, the researchers analysed Pink1 flies and found alterations in the activity of an enzyme called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (or NAD+). NAD+ is one of the major targets for the anti-aging crowd and there is some very interesting research being done on it (Click here for a good review on this). NAD+ is a coenzyme found in all living cells. A coenzyme functions by carrying electrons from one molecule to another (Click here for a nice animation that will explain this better). The researchers found that Pink1 mutant flies have decreased levels of NAD+.

The researchers were curious if a diet supplemented with the NAD+ would rescue the mitochondrial defects seen in the Pink1 mutant fly. Specifically, they fed the flies a diet high in the NAD+ precursor nicotinamide (being a precursor means that nicotinamide can be made into NAD+ once inside a cell). They found that not only did nicotinamide rescue the mitochondrial problems in the flies, but it also protected neurons from degeneration.

So why is the title of this post talking about Niacin and not nicotinamide?

Niacin (also known as vitamin B3 or nicotinic acid) – like nicotinamide – is also a precursor of NAD+. And in their discussion of the study, the researchers noted that a high level of dietary niacin has been associated with a reduced risk of developing Parkinson’s disease (Click here and here for more on this).

The researchers were quick to point out that while a high Niacin diet may be beneficial, it could not be considered a cure in anyway for people with Parkinson’s disease because although it may be able to slow the cell death it would not be able to replace the cells that have already been lost.

So what does it all mean?

Hang on a second. We’re not finished yet.

Numerous media outlets have made a big fuss about the Niacin diet angle to this research, and they have ignored another really interesting finding:

In their study the researchers mutated another gene in the Pink1 flies which also resulted in improved mitochondrial function and neuroprotection. That gene was Poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase (or PARP). Parp is an enzyme involved in DNA repair and cell division. It is produced in very high levels in many types of cancer and medication that inhibit or block Parp are being tested in the clinic as therapies in those cancers.

Interestingly, blocking Parp has been previously shown to be beneficial for cell survival in models of Parkinson’s disease (Click here and here for more information on this). So in addition to changing to a high niacin diet, it would be interesting to follow up this results as well.

Particularly for people with the Pink1 mutation.

And this is where the results of this study are particularly interesting: they may relate specifically to a small population within the Parkinson’s community – those with Pink1 mutations. It would be interesting to begin discussing and designing clinical studies that focus particularly on people in this population (similar to the Ambroxol study – click here for our post on this).

So what does it all mean? (again)

The results of the present study demonstrate two means by which people with a particular genetic mutation could be treated for Parkinson’s disease. Obviously further research is required, but the idea that we are approaching an age in Parkinson’s disease research where treatments could be personalised is very appealing. It will be interesting to see where all of this goes.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  If nothing we have written here makes any sense, then maybe this video will help:

The banner for today’s post was sourced from Wallpapersinhq

Nilotinib update – new trial delayed


It is with great frustration that we read today of the delayed start to the phase 2 clinical trial of the re-purposed cancer drug Nilotinib for Parkinson’s disease (click here for a story outlining the background, and click here for the Michael J Fox Foundation statement).

We have previously  discussed both the preclinical and clinical research regarding Nilotinib and its use in Parkinson’s disease (click here and here for those posts). And the Parkinson’s community certainly got very excited about the findings of the small phase 1 unblinded clinical trial conducted by researchers at Georgetown University in 2015.

With the recent failure of the GDNF trial in Bristol, what the Parkinson’s community (both suffers and researchers alike) needs to do is refocus on moving ahead with exciting new projects, like Nilotinib. To hear that the follow-up trials for Nilotinib, however, will be delayed until 2017 (TWO YEARS after the initial results were announced) due to disagreements regarding the design of the study and who is seemingly in charge of the project, is both baffling and deeply disappointing.

Currently it appears that parties involved in the follow-up clinical trial have decided to go their separate ways, with the researchers at Georgetown University looking to conduct a single site phase 2 study of 75 subjects (if they can access the drug from supplier Novartis), while the Michael J Fox backed consortium will set up a multi-site phase 2 study.

We will continue to follow this situation as it develops and will report events as they happen.