West Michigan Parkinson's efforts attract attention

January 4, 2011
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Although we are just beginning 2011, this year will mark a significant milestone with profound health care implications for baby boomers like me, who fondly remember the eight-track tape player and TV with three channels.

The first generation of boomers born in the post-war optimism of 1946 turn 65 this year, an age that serves as its own kind of a milestone, when many plan to retire and enjoy the fruits of their long working life.

Sixty-five is also a typical age of Parkinson’s disease onset and diagnosis.

Up to 1.5 million Americans are estimated to have this progressive neurodegenerative disorder that ranks only behind Alzheimer’s in terms of the number of patients afflicted in this category of disease.

This year, about 200 people in West Michigan will be diagnosed with the disease that often begins with tremors and stiffness that finally progress until balance, movement, communication and many of the other blessings that healthy people often take for granted become a problem.

Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson's. However, there may good news on the horizon for patients and for the rest of us who continue our march toward 65.

West Michigan stands poised to become an internationally recognized center of Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative disease research. This means that patients in our region could benefit from being among the first to receive advanced treatments and clinical trials unavailable in other areas of the country.

All along the Medical Mile, the community has developed the research and clinical resources, talent, infrastructure and partnerships to tackle this disease head on.

And the region is beginning to attract significant national attention.

For instance, the Michael J. Fox Foundation is funding ongoing research in the laboratories of Van Andel Institute. One current study seeks to uncover biomarkers for the early detection of Parkinson’s disease. There is currently no test for Parkinson’s, and such a diagnostic tool would assist clinicians in choosing appropriate treatment and monitoring the progression of Parkinson’s patients. The study could also uncover genes that could be pursued as drug targets for the disease.

Since 2005, in partnership with Saint Mary’s Health Care, VAI Distinguished Scientific Investigator Jim Resau, Ph.D., has collected genetic material from Parkinson’s patients and their families in efforts to track the genetic signature of the disease. And since 2006, Scientific Investigator Jeff MacKeigan, Ph.D., has studied how cells interact at the onset of Parkinson's disease, cancer and other diseases.

Both scientists also serve on the board of the Parkinson's Association of West Michigan, an organization that provides education and support services to persons with Parkinson's disease and to their families and care partners.

A national organization with similar goals has also taken an interest in the region. The Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson’s, an organization with the mission of “helping people living with Parkinson's to live well today,” has chosen Grand Rapids as one of the sites of its 2011 national Victory Summit symposia dedicated to helping patients improve the quality of their lives.

Another vital partner in these efforts, the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, brings a lot of resources to the fight. In 2009, MSU announced that a team of its researchers had been awarded a $6.2 million Morris K. Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s disease grant by the National Institutes of Health. This past year, they were joined by research colleagues recruited from the University of Cincinnati currently conducting research in Van Andel Institute labs.

MSU was aided in this recruitment by VAI, Spectrum Health and Saint Mary's, which serves as an essential, clinical part of the Parkinson equation. Saint Mary's opened its Hauenstein Center in 2009 to treat people living with Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders such as ALS, Alzheimer's and epilepsy.

Combined with all of this, there is the extraordinary promise of an important resource that has yet to be tapped: the Jay Van Andel Parkinson Research Lab, named for my father, who succumbed in his own battle with Parkinson’s in 2004.

VAI is in the process of recruiting an internationally renowned scientist to head, staff and run this lab that will play a vital role in the process of bringing discoveries from the lab bench to the patient’s bedside. We hope to make an important announcement regarding this recruitment early this year.

Nothing would make me prouder or more gratified than for our lab to play a direct role in uncovering the remaining secrets of Parkinson’s and to help develop the next generation of treatments for this dreaded disease.

This is a development for which the community of West Michigan and the research and clinical entities on the Medical Mile have already laid the important groundwork and forged the critical relationships for carrying out.

It could mean the difference between life and death for each succeeding baby boomer class until the last of them retire in 2030, and for the Generation X’ers, the Millennials and future generations yet to be named.

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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