Actor Michael J. Fox once predicted that he would be cured of Parkinson disease's long before his 50th birthday. "I know I won't have this. I will not have it," he told Barbara Walters on national television.
At 52, Fox is far from cured.
Yet this week, more than a dozen years after leaving the TV series Spin City because he could no longer hide his declining health, he returns Thursday to star in The Michael J. Fox Show (9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC).
Instead of hiding his symptoms, he is celebrating them, starring as a fictional TV anchor and father with Parkinson's. He jokes about his shaking hands, poor motor control and people's reactions to his disability.
Just part of life
"We're not making fun of Parkinson's, we're examining a life that has Parkinson's and just how one guy deals with it," Fox says in a video about the show. "It's part of the human experience. You can't cower from it. ... You have to accept it, incorporate it into your life. If you have a loving, full life, it'll just be part of it, just one of the colors of the palette."
In a way, not much has changed in the 15 years since Fox first publicly acknowledged that he had the disease and the 22 years since his diagnosis. Most patients still rely on a medication, levodopa, first tested on Parkinson's the year Fox was born.
In other ways -- and much to Fox's credit, many say -- our understanding of the disease has been transformed since his diagnosis. Research is closer to a cure even as scientists acknowledge that it will be far harder to achieve than they once believed.
The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, launched in May 2000, has raised more than $350 million. Its mission remains the same: Find a cure and find it fast.
"Michael was very clear that the goal is to make progress for patients, do it quickly, cut all the red tape," says foundation CEO Todd Sherer.
About 1 million Americans have Parkinson's, most of them older than 50. It is believed to be caused by the gradual loss of the brain chemical dopamine, which leads to distorted brain signals that cause the characteristic tremors, muscle rigidity and slowed movements, Sherer says. Symptoms vary widely and advance at different speeds.
As with Fox, Soania Mathur's first instinct upon diagnosis was to hide her disease. She was 26, pregnant with her first child and just beginning a career as a physician. Fox was the only young person she knew of with Parkinson's, and he was a role model.
Mathur, now 42, lives near Toronto; like most Parkinson's patients, she takes L-dopa, which was described as miraculous when it was first used because it restored people who had practically turned to statues. "It's a very fine balance between getting the effect you want (from L-dopa) and side effects, which can be as debilitating as the disease itself," she says.
The longer the disease progresses, the harder it is to get the dosage right and avoid side effects like involuntary movements, says Jon Palfreman of the Journal of Parkinson's Disease.
But L-dopa delivery has improved since Fox's diagnosis, says Bernard Ravina of the drug firm Biogen Idec.
making modest advances
Still, the only major new treatment in the past two decades is deep-brain stimulation, in which electrodes are implanted in the brain to partially override the distorted signals that cause tremors, stiffness and slowness. But like L-dopa, it treats only symptoms, not the disease.
Another advance is the attention now being paid to the emotional and mental toll of Parkinson's, says Irene Richard, a neurologist at the University of Rochester. About half of Parkinson's patients are depressed.
Scientists also now have a deeper understanding of the disease and what might be done to slow or stop it. The main culprit seems to be a common protein called alpha-synuclein, which forms sticky toxins that jump from cell to cell inside the brain, killing neurons as they go. Experimental drugs and vaccines that target the protein are being tested in patients.
Says Palfreman, "The idea of prevention or a cure is really not absurd anymore."
Eric Liebowitz, NBC, via AP
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