A major study into the progression of Parkinson’s disease 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.
Parkinson’s 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.
The Foundation has spent almost €35m so far on studies looking for Parkinson’s biomarkers.
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.
“The great thing is we don’t have to wait until the end of the five years to start using the data,” she said, adding it would be made available to researchers through a publicly-accessible website, with patient details anonymised.
So far, several pharmaceutical giants, including Roche, Pfizer, Merck, GE Healthcare and Genentech, have put millions of dollars into the research.
The Foundation wishes to recruit another three to five partners and hopes, in total, to receive $20m (€15m) from pharmaceutical companies as well as contributing $20m (€15m) itself.
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.
Ms Brooks said: “We are really excited to see this field-wide commitment to really going after these markers of disease progression.
“It’s a key tool for our ability to develop and test new treatments for Parkinson’s. Without it, there’s a risk that developing and testing treatments will remain too challenging.
“The patients really are the ones who hold the scientific secrets about Parkinson’s disease and it’s a remarkable contribution they are making to this study.”
Patients will not be on any medicines at the start of the study, although they may start taking them during the course of the research.
Ms Brooks said there is often a long time lag between developing potential treatments and getting regulatory approval.
Finding the key biomarkers for Parkinson’s would “compress” these time frames, she added.
David Brooks, professor of neurology at Imperial College, London, will lead the study at the UK site.
He said: “To develop life-transforming treatments for the millions of people living with Parkinson’s disease worldwide, we need consistent and reliable biomarkers – measurable indicators of disease risk, onset and progression.
“This study will leverage our group’s expertise in developing imaging-based biomarkers, and allow us to take our Parkinson’s biomarker programme to the next level through open collaboration with The Michael J Fox Foundation and top-flight investigative teams across Europe and the United States.”