When Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 29, his clearest symptom was a small one — his pinky finger was twitching. However, even by that stage, 70% to 80% of a patient’s dopamine-producing cells are already gone, Fox said. “What happens in that time, that shadowy place?” Fox said, referring to the period before his pinky finger first started twitching. Thanks to advances in Parkinson’s research, he said while speaking virtually at the STAT Summit in Boston in October 2023, “We can solve that now, we can answer that question — we can say here’s what’s happening, and here’s where we stop it.”
About half a million Americans have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s; however, experts estimate that perhaps twice as many people actually have the disease, given the prevalence of misdiagnoses and missed diagnoses. Fox likened the clinical measures used to diagnose him with Parkinson’s decades ago to a drunk driving test. The live audience laughed as he pointed each index finger to his nose, the way police have long asked intoxicated drivers to do.
Research around the disease has improved markedly in the last few decades, in no small part thanks to Fox’s financial support through the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. In April 2023, research published in the Lancet Neurology and funded by the Foundation identified a biomarker for Parkinson’s in a particular protein. A spinal tap is needed to detect the biomarker; however, researchers called the finding “a game changer” for both diagnostics and potential treatments for the disease.
Deborah W. Brooks, CEO and co-founder of the foundation, also spoke virtually at the STAT Summit, noting that the ability to identify Parkinson’s an entire decade or more before symptoms begin could have major benefits for patients. “This is a big shift of opportunity to have the beginnings of a biological staging system for Parkinson’s disease and Lewy Body syndrome,” Brooks said.
REFERENCE: STAT; 19 OCT 2023; Theresa Gaffney