Blogging with Parkinson's

A personal perspective on Young Onset Parkinson's


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Oxford University Stem Cell “Breakthrough” in Parkinson’s Research

Dopamine neurons (in green) grown using stem cell technology. (c) Oxford University

A BBC video article alerted me to a new “breakthrough” in attempts to grow nerve cells from stem cells (derived, in this case, from skin samples). Researchers at Oxford University took skin samples from people with Parkinson’s disease and used stem cell technology to create “nerve cells that are just like those of the people with Parkinson’s” in the lab.

This is a breakthrough in that it allows the Parkinsonian nerve cells to be studied in an attempt to discover what makes the dopamine neurons die off in Parkinson’s Disease.

‘We can’t take bits of people’s brains when they are alive, of course,’ says Dr Richard Wade-Martins of the Oxford Parkinson’s Disease Centre, who led the work. ‘So we never have been able to study dopamine neurons from a patient.’

News article from Oxford University

This is the first stage in a long-term study funded by Parkinson’s UK intended to investigate “all the biological processes that go wrong in Parkinson’s, giving greater insight into the causes of the disease.”

It is not the much vaunted stem cell therapy, but it is, potentially, a step towards some type of therapy – to be determined by the results of the ongoing study.


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New York Times on “Marching Through Life with Parkinson’s”

The New York Times has an article discussing Parkinson’s Disease and a few strands of research:

Marching Through Life With Parkinson’s

Marching Through Life With Parkinson’s

The article, written by Jane E. Brody, talks about how patients cope with the condition, including touching upon the subject of medication and – with a little more emphasis – physical exercise. It includes Young Onset patients (in fact, it begins with one), which makes a pleasant change. Then the subject of research is broached, and we get reference to the Michael J. Fox Foundation (whose post on Facebook alerted me to the NY Times article, and who fund a lot of research into Parkinson’s). The ongoing development of a biomarker for Parkinson’s progression is covered, as is a form of radical gene therapy. There isn’t room in this type of article for a general survey of current research, but the two elements selected seem to represent the breadth of what is being studied.

It’s a nice piece of journalism, and it’s good to see the condition covered in such a high profile newspaper.


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Michael J. Fox Honoured by Canada

http://montreal.ctv.ca/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20110527/michael-fox-order-canada-110527/20110527/?hub=MontrealHome

Michael J. Fox and Governor General David Johnston, May 27, 2011. (Patrick Doyle / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Michael J. Fox, the actor who starred in such 80’s teen movies as the Back to the Future trilogy and Teen Wolf, has been honoured by his native country for “his service to Canada or humanity at large.” More specifically, Fox was awarded the Order of Canada for his endeavours in supporting Parkinson’s Disease research.

Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the age of 30 shortly after completing the movie Doc Hollywood. He continued to act for some years (he ‘semi-retired’ in 2000) and ‘came out’ about his condition in 1998, since when he has become politically active in seeking awareness and support for research into Parkinson’s. He set up the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research in 2000; this organisation “is dedicated to finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease through an aggressively funded research agenda and to ensuring the development of improved therapies for those living with Parkinson’s today.”

Fox is also the author of two memoirs that describe his experiences with Parkinson’s (and yes, I intend to feature them in a future post – after I’ve read the second one!).

[Edit: That post is now up! See here.]

Michael J. Fox is perhaps the most high profile person to have been diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s. He has made it his business to ensure that this condition is publicised. As such, he has used his privileged position to help everyone who has Parkinson’s, particularly, I think, those who contracted it at an early age.

Fox’s dedication to his cause is without question, as is his philanthropy (the foundation could never have existed without his personal fortune). Yet, still, people find cause to complain about the honour he has received. Looking at the comments on the CTV article, some seem to think that he is being honoured for his acting career (there is nothing in the article to suggest this) and that, as he is no longer resident in Canada, he does not deserve the country’s respect. As a mere Briton, I am not qualified to comment, but it seems to me that, whatever his residency status – or even his citizenship – Fox has made excellent use of the resources available to him and would be a credit to any nation.


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The Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank

I recently attended a seminar on current research into Parkinson’s. It was organised by Parkinson’s UK (the support and research charity) as part of a series of local seminars aimed at people newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and was presented by one of Parkinson’s UK’s research team. It was very, very interesting; Dr Lubna Arif is an engaging speaker, and she managed to present an overview of the research that the charity is currently involved with and to summarise how the charity supports research.

Dr David Dexter

Dr David Dexter, Scientific Director, Parkinson's UK Brain Bank

One of the many things that she spoke about was the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank. This is not (as I initially guessed) a group of highly intelligent people doing a lot of serious thinking about research into Parkinson’s. It is something a little more prosaic: a ‘bank’ of brain samples that have been donated after death.

The Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank collect and preserve the brains of people who have signed up to donate their brain for research purposes. The Brain Bank supplies researchers with the samples that they require to further their research into Parkinson’s.

As well as collecting brains affected by Parkinson’s, the team also require brains from people without Parkinsonian symptoms. In fact, there is a shortage of non-Parkinson’s brains in the bank.

I’ve requested my information pack (the first stage in signing up to become a Brain Donor) – will you?

Become a Brain Donor


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Gut Reaction: A Possible Link Between the Gut and Parkinson’s

It’s absolutely ages since I bought New Scientist. Don’t get me wrong – I love reading it; it’s my favourite popular science magazine – but sometimes there just isn’t time for magazines. Today, however, in the newsagent, the cover caught my eye, and, because I touched upon quantum theory at university, I decided to treat myself.

I got home and opened the magazine up. And there it was, the first featured item on the contents page:

The unlikeliest transplant*
Replacing faecal matter could ease Parkinson’s symptoms
(*You need a subscription to read online).

I turned to page 8 and read:

A few years ago, John Gillies had trouble picking up his grandchild. He would stand frozen, waiting for his Parkinson’s disease to relinquish its hold and allow him to move. Then in May 2008, Gillies was given antibiotics to treat constipation, and astonishingly his Parkinson’s symptoms abated. What on earth was going on?

Anil Ananthaswamy, ‘Bugs from your gut to mine’, New Scientist, 22 January 2011

Subscription required to read New Scientist article on-line.A nice anecdote, and one to inspire hope. Researchers are investigating the link between bacteria in the gut and a number of disorders – in addition to Parkinson’s, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis are also mentioned.

The theory is that gut bacteria may enter the central nervous system via the vagus nerve, which runs from the colon, small intestine and stomach to the brain. An infection of the colon may release antigens into the bloodstream and so trigger an autoimmune response. Alleviating the colon infection may have unexpected, beneficial, effects elsewhere.

However, unless the antigen is completely cleared from the gut (this is where the idea of a faecal transplant is introduced – effectively adding ‘good’ bacteria to the colon), the immune response is relentless and will manifest as an autoimmune disease.

The idea that Parkinson’s is an autoimmune disease has been suggested by recent research. I’m not sure how well established this theory is, though, but it seems to have given researchers several avenues to investigate.

The use of gut flora to treat various conditions by means of transplant seems to be a relatively new idea that has yet to be developed into anything that can be used on a large scale. As one researcher quoted in the article says, “You don’t want to treat one disease and introduce another” (Arthur Kaser, University of Cambridge, UK).

It’s great to see these things being reported in the (almost) mainstream press, and it was especially gratifying to find such an article in the first copy of New Scientist that I’ve picked up in months.


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More News on Cycling and Parkinson’s

Don’t expect this from me all the time, but this snippet of news comes to you almost hot off the press, being only two days old as I type this.

'Found' Clip Art

So, just how do you fit a basket on drop handlebars?

 

The Telegraph reports that doctors in the Netherlands (again! – I’d ask what is it about the Netherlands and cycling, but we all know that it’s got at least a little to do with not having any hills worth mentioning; I just wonder why UEA and my own alma mater, the University of Hull, haven’t jumped on the pedal-powered bandwagon) have proposed a ‘test’ for Parkinson’s patients that apparently performs better than expensive medical tests in determining what type of Parkinson’s a patient has.

The new test is a simple query: can you still ride a bike? If the answer is ‘yes’, then the patient is likely to have the standard variant of Parkinson’s. If ‘no’, then it is possible that they have atypical Parkinson’s.

Atypical Parkinson’s is a particularly nasty form of the condition that adds cognitive and memory problems to the motor issues usually associated with Parkinson’s.

I’m very happy to say that I can, indeed, still ride my bike. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so relieved about being able to cycle.


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Can’t Walk? Get on Yer Bike…

Here’s another YouTube video, with footage from the Netherlands of a gentleman who is having extreme difficulty walking, but who can ride a bike without difficulty:

This is footage shot by the chap’s doctor, uploaded in April 2010. There is an accompanying short article in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The person who posted this video felt obliged to say that, in the Netherlands, it is neither legally required nor customary to where a cycle helmet. If you look at the comments on YouTube, you’ll find someone – who evidently hasn’t read this note, nor considered that this is unlikely to have been the first time that the fellow has performed this feat – complaining that, “given his history … they might have put a helmet on him.”

When I first saw this video, I was rather concerned that he would cycle off into the sunset, never to be seen again, unable to stop or steer – but he proves himself perfectly capable of controlling his machine, even dismounting by himself at the end. I do, however, find it a little disconcerting that – from the evidence in the video – it seems as if he has to be placed on the bicycle and given a good push to start. Not very practical, that.

Still, it is suggested by the authors of the article that cycling may prove to be a good form of exercise for patients with advanced Parkinsonian symptoms. Hopefully, it may result in the type of improvements noted by Dr. Alberts.