A guest blog by James Beck, Ph.D., Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer, Parkinson’s Foundation
This year, we mark 200 years since James Parkinson published his famous monograph, An Essay on the Shaking Palsy. In that time, we have reached many key milestones in science that have dramatically improved the lives of the ten million people worldwide who live with Parkinson’s. Yet we still have nothing to slow the disease and nothing to stop it.
At the Parkinson’s Foundation, we consider the bicentennial anniversary of James Parkinson’s work a perfect time to look back at lessons learned and ahead at what’s to come. For example, looking back at the time that has passed since 1817, few milestones have been as monumental as the identification of levodopa by George Cotzias in 1967 and its subsequent confirmation as a life-changing Parkinson’s treatment by Dr. Melvin Yahr in 1968.
Today, our community still relies on levodopa as the gold-standard drug to treat Parkinson’s motor symptoms. Despite the lack of newer drugs, scientific progress has not stopped. In fact, we predict that advances in the next 20 years will likely outpace the progress of the past 200.
As we scan the horizon, we are seeing advances in healthcare and science that will lead to new ways of living better with the disease. The increasing intersections between information technology, healthcare, biomarkers, and genetics may help us to predict who will develop Parkinson’s. Meanwhile, advances in technology are portending a day when we can accurately measure the progression of Parkinson’s. Most importantly, we may be on the cusp of testing new hypotheses that will allow us to reach our ultimate end goal of stopping Parkinson’s.
This is exciting. However, if we want these advances to come to fruition, we must heed the lessons learned from Cotzias’s story — the need for human capital.
Many people may be surprised to learn that Cotzias’ key discovery of levodopa and Dr. Yahr’s follow-up study were milestones that were nearly missed. In the 1960s, funding was plentiful, and many researchers were testing levodopa. Where so many failed, only Cotzias succeeded, and he did so by taking a unique approach that no one could have predicted would work.
His story illustrates what many scientists know: that we cannot predict where answers will come from, and that we need a diverse cadre of people looking at diseases from different angles to solve them. Thus, he tells us what we need to create a world without Parkinson’s – people.
We need people who dedicate their careers to Parkinson’s research. Yet, over the past 20 years, human capital in the research community has been in jeopardy. The average age at which a scientist receives his or her first R01 (the original and historically oldest grant mechanism used by the NIH) has crept up from their 30s to their early 40s, leading droves of talented researchers to leave the lab for more stable careers.
If we don’t change our way of thinking about the next generation of scientists, we could easily lose a cadre of researchers who are at the prime of their careers. At the Parkinson’s Foundation, we are doing our part by dedicating millions of dollars to support early-career scientists and clinicians.
But this isn’t enough. As a society, we need to value the up-and-coming generation for their creativity and support their ingenuity. A few weeks from now, on June 1st, we’re bringing together some of the best and brightest of the next generation for a scientific event entitled, “World Without Parkinson’s.” We’re asking one question of each these up-and-coming leaders, “How do you predict your area of expertise will help to end Parkinson’s?”
Will any of them have the right answer? Is the next George Cotzias among our speakers?
We don’t know. But we know that we have to continue to ask the question and make opportunities available for researchers to thrive until we find him or her.
In fact, it’s the only way we can find the world we envision — the one in which Parkinson’s no longer exists.
The Parkinson’s Foundation is working toward a world without Parkinson’s disease. Formed by the merger of National Parkinson Foundation and the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation in August 2016, the mission of the Parkinson’s Foundation is to invest in promising scientific research that will end Parkinson’s disease and improve the lives of people with Parkinson’s, and their families, through improved treatments, support and the best care. For more information, visit www.parkinsonsfoundation.org or call (800) 4PD-INFO (473-4636) or (800) 457-6676.