Parkinson’s disease

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Howard Porter was 40 years old in 1982, when doctors on the faculty at Boston University School of Medicine diagnosed his Parkinson’s Disease. “I was shocked,” he recalls. “Until then, I had been very healthy.”

But Mr. Porter, a former sheet metal worker from Stoneham, Massachusetts, decided to confront this challenge. With the help of a team of clinicians and scientists at Boston University, Mr. Porter, now 68, has learned to cope with Parkinson’s, a progressive disease of the brain that affects primarily the motor system, and to live a happy and productive life.

He takes medication to ease symptoms and manage side effects. With yoga and meditation, he has learned to better control his movements. Today, he is a prolific artist, sketching local scenes for notecards, prints, and calendars. He leads a choral group, plays piano at the town senior center, writes poetry, and hosts a local cable television show.

Working with the faculty at the School of Medicine has given Mr. Porter access to the leading edge of research. The School of Medicine frequently conducts trials of Parkinson’s treatments. Mr. Porter volunteers for almost all of them. “It helps me stay in touch with what’s happening in Parkinson’s research,” Mr. Porter says. “A lot of what I’ve been able to do has been a result of the care I received.”

Boston University School of Medicine is at the forefront of a worldwide effort to combat Parkinson’s and improve the lives of those who have it.

BUSM is recognized as one of the nation’s leading centers for Parkinson’s research. The American Parkinson Disease Association has designated the School an Advanced Center of Research, one of nine in the country. The School is also part of a nationwide study funded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation to measure progression of the disease, which affects more than 6 million people worldwide.

The healthy brain uses a chemical, dopamine, to control movement and coordination. In individuals with Parkinson’s, the nerve cells that produce dopamine are damaged. Although no cure exists, research is discovering ways to improve diagnosis, slow the disease’s progress, alleviate symptoms, and identify causes.

Why do people get Parkinson’s? Researchers believe the disease arises from an interplay of genetics and environment. At Boston University, researchers are investigating both fronts.

Uncovering the cause

Doctors Richard Myers, Benjamin Wolozin, and Jiang-Fan Chen are working together to unravel the genetics of the disease. Dr. Myers studies families in which more than one member has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Through DNA testing, he identifies genes associated with the disease. Doctors Wolozin and Chen then analyze these genes in cell and animal models to identify targets for drug therapies.

BUSM researchers have also discovered a number of environmental factors associated with Parkinson’s. Exposure to pesticides or heavy metals both appear to increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Wolozin is conducting laboratory research that explores how these environmental factors might interact with genes linked to Parkinson’s disease.

Exploring new treatments

For several decades, effective drugs have been given to alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s. The most widely used is levodopa, which replaces some of the brain’s diminished supply of dopamine. But levodopa has long term complications including the onset of involuntary movements known as dyskinesia.

At Boston University, researchers are exploring drug treatments that increase the effectiveness of levodopa while reducing its side effects. For some patients in advanced stages of the disease, medication will not control dyskinesia. For these individuals, deep brain stimulation—implanting electrodes in the area of the brain that controls movement—can be effective treatment. Neurologist Samuel Ellias collaborates with neurosurgeon Dr Keith Davies to perform this highly advanced procedure.

Some of the most promising Parkinson’s research involves development of treatments that hold the promise of slowing the progression of the disease so that individuals can stay active longer. Dr. Jiang-Fan Chen has identified a chemical compound that appears to protect neurons from damage and holds the promise of delaying the onset of Parkinson’s symptoms.

The School of Medicine is strongly committed to progress in care and research for Mr. Porter and the many individuals and families affected by Parkinson’s disease. But, as Dr. Marie Saint-Hilaire, medical director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center emphasizes, that progress cannot be made without the ongoing close collaboration of clinicians and scientists, and the support of patients, families, and friends.

Sample giving opportunities

  • Create and name an endowed professorship for the faculty of the program: $1.25 million for an assistant professor, $2.5 million for a full professor
  • Endow a research fund: $100,000
  • Endow a scholarship for a BUSM student: $100,000
  • Endow a postdoctoral fellowship: $100,000
  • Create a current-use fellowship award: $10,000
  • Provide unrestricted support as a member of the BUSM Dean’s Club: $1,500 and above