Research leads to growing hope for Parkinson’s disease

January 4, 2019
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Since its first description more than 200 years ago, the causes of Parkinson’s disease and its progression have largely remained shrouded in shadows, eluding scientists and frustrating people anxious for a cure.

My father, Jay Van Andel, was one of those people. When he was diagnosed, he was in his prime — a dedicated family man, philanthropist and business leader. His life was forever changed when he heard the words, “You have Parkinson’s disease.” Although a drug was available to help with Parkinson’s symptoms, there were no treatments that could slow, stop or prevent the disease. Instead, there were many questions without answers and a feeling that something more should be done. In an instant, the fight against Parkinson’s became deeply personal for me and for my family. For a decade, my father fought with everything he had, but he passed away in 2004 from complications related to the disease.

In the future, diagnoses like my father’s will be more frequent, and there will be a significant need for new discoveries that help people with Parkinson’s. By 2040, the global incidence of this insidious disease is slated to double, from an estimated 7 million worldwide to more than 14 million. While this statistic might seem stark, among scientists, people with Parkinson’s and advocates, there is a powerful sense of hope on the horizon and a growing optimism for what the future holds.

Finding new ways to diagnose, prevent and stop progression

Thanks to intensive work by scientists and the Parkinson’s community around the world, including right here in Grand Rapids, we now know more about this disease than ever before. This knowledge is the bedrock upon which we are building new ways to definitively diagnose Parkinson’s and slow or stop its progression. It’s an audacious goal, but one day, we hope with increased knowledge we will be able to prevent Parkinson’s from starting in the first place.

Advances are happening rapidly, and they are happening here in West Michigan. In late 2018, a team led by Van Andel Institute scientists published a groundbreaking study that pointed to the appendix as a possible starting point for Parkinson’s. This discovery could fundamentally change the way we view and study the disease. Already, new avenues of research are opening that could lead to therapies targeting Parkinson’s, including how it starts and progresses.

At the same time, the field of Parkinson’s research is expanding. We now know that Parkinson’s is much more than a movement disorder; it also is associated with a host of other challenging symptoms, such as digestive issues, loss of sense of smell and cognitive decline. We also know that Parkinson’s isn’t just a brain disorder; it is linked to other areas of the body, most notably the gut. And we know that Parkinson’s is not caused by one single thing. Instead, the disease likely results from a complex constellation of genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors.

From the lab to the doctor’s office

While these discoveries are exciting, it also is important to recognize that for people with Parkinson’s and their families, these findings on their own are not enough. If we truly are going to make an impact, these findings must be translated into new treatments that improve patients’ lives.

Moving a new therapy from the lab into the doctor’s office is a complicated endeavor that requires time, funding and a network of people to make it happen. That’s why we work closely with The Cure Parkinson’s Trust, a United Kingdom-based research charity, whose pioneering Linked Clinical Trials (LCT) initiative is making significant inroads toward new, more effective treatments.

LCT harnesses the collective expertise and resources of scientists, physicians, pharmaceutical companies and people with Parkinson’s to investigate the possible use of medications developed to treat other diseases as potential therapies for Parkinson’s. Called drug repurposing, this approach can save precious time and resources, enabling quicker translation into the clinic. To date, this collaboration has launched more than 10 clinical trials, including promising work investigating the potential to use existing diabetes drugs to treat Parkinson’s.

When discoveries made in labs are supported by strong collaborations among scientists and clinicians, and knowledge is shared by an active, informed Parkinson’s community, we shine a bright light on the disease and give hope to millions of people. Together, we can build on new insights, accelerate the pace of discovery and make lasting, positive improvements in how Parkinson’s is diagnosed and treated.

Reflecting on how far we’ve come, I know my father would be encouraged by our progress and optimistic about our future. As we forge new ground, there is no doubt that our biggest reward will come when scientific discoveries lead to real-world changes that make a profound difference in the lives of people with Parkinson’s and their families.

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

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