A major study into the progression of Parkinson’s disease, which will include British patients, is being launched by actor Michael J Fox.
The research is the first of its kind and will involve 400 people from five sites in Europe and 14 hospitals in the US.
Patients in the earliest stages of Parkinson’s – before they have started any treatment – will be enrolled in the study to find key biomarkers for the disease.
Fox, who was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s aged 30, said the research was important because “better treatments aren’t going to fall from the sky” and “real challenges stand in the way of the results we need”.
Currently, there is no definitive way of measuring how Parkinson’s progresses. This means it is difficult for doctors to work out whether a drug is slowing down or halting the disease’s advances.
Reliable and robust biomarkers to monitor the progression of Parkinson’s would improve patient care, lead to new drugs and enhance understanding of the condition. Some 120,000 Britons have Parkinson’s, which is caused by a loss of brain cells that produce a chemical messenger called dopamine.
Symptoms include a tremor or fine shake while the person is at rest, rigidity of muscles, slowness of movement and an unsteady balance.
In the new study, samples taken from patients will help identify what is happening in the body, and will include data on motor skills, samples of blood, urine and spinal fluid, and brain scans. This data will be then used either alone or in combination to track progression of the disease.
The research starts in early 2011 and is being co-ordinated and part-funded by the Micheal J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Debi Brooks, co-founder of the Michael J Fox Foundation, said patients will be followed for between three and five years, and compared with healthy volunteers.
As well as the US sites, there will be research centres at Imperial College London, one in Italy, two in Germany and one in Austria. David Brooks, professor of neurology at Imperial College, London, will lead the study at the UK site.