UAB involved in landmark Parkinson’s study
by Jennifer Cohron
Oct 17, 2010 | 1444 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) was recently selected as one of 18 sites for a new $40 million study sponsored by the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

The Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI) will be conducted over five years and include 400 newly diagnosed Parkinson’s patients as well as 200 participants who do not have the disorder.

The goal of the study is to find biomarkers, or any measurable physical characteristic associated with the presence of the disease.

Dr. David G. Standaert, director and professor of neurology at UAB, said an example of a biomarker is the Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) test, which is used to diagnosis prostate cancer based on the amount of protein found in the blood.

Recent studies have also found that the presence of certain proteins in the spinal fluid can be used to determine whether a patient is developing Alzheimer’s.

“We don’t have anything like that in Parkinson’s, but nobody has really looked for it before either. We know that during the autopsy of a Parkinson’s patient, there are accumulations of abnormal proteins in the brain. The question is whether we can see those while somebody is alive and would it tell us how active the disease is,” Standaert said.

PPMI is an observational clinical study, which means no experimental treatment will be offered. Participants will experience tests that include brain imaging, biologics sampling and behavioral assessments.

Standaert said it is important that patients have early Parkinson’s and not yet be undergoing treatment for the disease. He added that doctors typically wait a year or more before suggesting a drug treatment for newly diagnosed patients.

“Over the course of five years, it might be necessary that they begin taking something, and we’ll leave that up to their doctor. We won’t interfere with that,” Standaert said.

Standaert and Dr. Ray Watts lead the Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorder Research Program at UAB. The American Parkinson’s Disease Association recognized the university as one of eight advanced centers for Parkinson’s research nationally in 2006.

The clinic sees 5,000 patient visits a year, employs eight physicians who are specialists in Parkinson’s and typically has between 10 and 15 trials that cover a range of topics related to Parkinson’s.

“Some of them are testing new kind of drug therapies for Parkinson’s. Some are looking for therapies that would slow the disease or alter it, and some are just asking basic questions about Parkinson’s and trying to understand the cause,” Standaert said.

Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that affects 1.5 million Americans. Degeneration of the brain occurs as nerve cells that produce an important chemical called dopamine die or are damaged.

The loss of dopamine results in the common symptoms of Parkinson’s, which include tremors, slowness, stiffness and walking problems.

Standaert said drugs exist that can treat the symptoms but not cure them.

“They (patients) can go a number of years on these therapies, but the process of degeneration and cell loss goes on in the brain and the condition gets worse,” Standaert said.

Symptoms of the later stages of Parkinson’s include loss of smell, memory loss and dementia.

Standaert said experts suspect that changes in the brain begin 10 years before the person becomes aware of them.

Studies like PPMI are looking for biomarkers that could help diagnosis the disease earlier than is possible now.

“If we could find those people before the symptoms occur and do something to slow the process, it would basically be a cure,” Standaert said.

There is currently no test for Parkinson’s disease. Standaert said the best he can usually offer his patients is an educated opinion.

Researchers with PPMI are hoping to find something, whether it is a brain scan or test of the blood or spinal fluid, that could be used to definitively diagnosis Parkinson’s and tell doctors how the disease is changing.

Standaert said PPMI is an exciting study for researchers who have hopes of finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s not just looking for another dopamine treatment. We have a lot of those. This is really laying the groundwork for studies which are going to try to cure this disorder,” Standaert said.

For information, call 934-0683.