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Parkinson’s Disease: Offering New Hope

More than 180 years ago British physician James Parkinson first described “shaking palsy,” now known as Parkinson’s disease. Today we know the disease occurs when cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a chemical messenger needed for smooth and coordinated muscle movement, die or become impaired — resulting in shaking, stiffness, balance problems and other symptoms.

For many, even walking, talking or doing everyday tasks becomes increasingly difficult. Although there is no known cause or cure for Parkinson’s disease, experts are actively working to find new ways to fight it and improve the lives of people living with this progressive disorder.

New research at RUSH University Medical Center and around the world provides new hope for patients and families facing the reality of Parkinson’s disease.

Center of hope
At the Movement Disorders Center at RUSH, a team of experts conducts research into the causes and treatment of disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and provides leading-edge patient care.

Only a few other programs worldwide combine a clinical and laboratory research wing on a single campus, which means that patients at RUSH can access the latest treatments and new drug therapies.

More than 20 clinical trials are currently under way at RUSH, with a focus on new ways to control the side effects of medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease, such as involuntary jerks called dyskinesias that can make even simple tasks like brushing one’s teeth challenging.

“We’re working on agents that improve the dyskinesias; when that happens, we may be able to use the other medications more effectively,” says Christopher Goetz, MD, a leading authority on movement disorders and director of the Movement Disorders Center at RUSH.

Experts at RUSH are targeting other Parkinson’s disease-related problems such as sleep disturbances; hallucinations, which sometimes occur with advanced disease; and “motor fluctuations,” in which patients respond unpredictably to medications.

Research flow
With integrated lab and clinical research, the Movement Disorders Center team at RUSH is fighting Parkinson’s disease from many angles.

“The two services work hand-in-hand, taking discoveries that come from the laboratory and bringing them into the clinic,” Goetz says. Observations made in the clinic also flow back to the lab.

One such investigational treatment is an upcoming gene-therapy study. In the lab, researchers at RUSH have conducted studies using a virus (with its dangerous material removed) to deliver a gene to a brain cell so that it can make substances to prevent or reverse cell degeneration. “In effect, the new treatment causes the brain cell to change its machinery,” Goetz says.

For some Parkinson’s disease patients, medications have insufficient impact and surgery is often their best option. Roy Bakay, MD, internationally renowned neurosurgeon at RUSH, specializes in innovative surgical treatments for Parkinson’s disease, including deep-brain stimulation (DBS). In DBS, electrodes implanted in the brain attach to an adjustable device that blocks the signals that cause Parkinson’s disease symptoms, often reducing the need for medication.

Progress and hope
Goetz believes the information gained by Parkinson’s disease researchers will provide a blueprint for treating other debilitating movement disorders. “We will crack Parkinson’s first, then we’ll be able to devise better treatments for a variety of neurodegenerative disorders,” he says. “That is the enormous hope we can offer our patients.”

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