Thirty years ago, Michael J. Fox would never have believed you if you told him he’d be talking cell biology instead of talking on a cell phone. For the actor who played time-traveler Marty McFly in the “Back to the Future” series, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease (PD) wasn’t something he saw coming from the driver’s seat of his DeLorean.
But on Back to the Future Day – October 21, 2015, the “future” in the 1989 hit “Back to the Future Part II” – Fox knows one thing for certain: One day, not just Parkinson’s disease but all neurological diseases will be no more than a memory. “And if we all eventually get hoverboards, well – that’s a bonus,” he quipped in an email open letter published by the White House on Wednesday morning.
With the subject line, “Today, we’re in the future,” Fox’s email boldly challenges his fellow Americans to imagine the world in which they want to live in the next three decades. While not everyone is destined to be a scientist studying the human brain, each of us can play a part, Fox asserts.
“One reason Parkinson’s research has come so far in the past 15 years is that people and families living with the disease have stepped up as advocates and innovators themselves, working to build the future we all want,” he wrote.
In honor of Back to the Future Day, the CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation, Dr. Todd Sherer, spoke with MSNBC about what Fox himself described as “a future in which we can treat, cure, and even prevent brain diseases like Parkinson’s.”
MSNBC: Deep-brain stimulation, or DBS, is the only major new treatment to come along for Parkinson’s in the last two decades. Are new treatments around the corner? How is The Michael J. Fox Foundation leading the charge?
Sherer: In the nearly 200 years since Dr. James Parkinson first described this disease, patients’ greatest unmet need has remained the same: a treatment that can slow or stop the disease’s inexorable progression in the brain, not just temporarily alleviate symptoms (like levodopa, commercialized in 1967, and the gold-standard PD treatment to this day).
Now, thanks in large part to the genetics revolution over the past 15 years, Parkinson’s researchers have seeded a rich pipeline of potentially disease-modifying drugs. Several are showing unprecedented promise and advancing through clinical trials closer to practical relevance for patients. A bevy of next-generation symptomatic therapies also are moving closer to market.
The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) drives these studies with financial support mostly from people with Parkinson’s disease and their families (over $525 million to date) and by working to solve field-wide problems that slow the pace of research. We’re sponsoring studies toward better, objective measures of disease that will allow us to identify individuals at risk and speed testing of new therapies. We’re galvanizing patients and families to greater engagement in research overall – from participating in traditional clinical studies to leveraging technology-enabled solutions to amplify the patient voice in setting research direction.
MSNBC: Over the next 52 years, the senior population in this country is set to double. What impact will this have on Parkinson’s? Is it time to act with an increased urgency?
Sherer: The need for breakthrough Parkinson’s therapies is urgent. Age is the greatest risk factor for PD. Currently, one in 100 people over age 60 is diagnosed with PD; as our population grows older, this number will rise. Advances in PD also can have implications for other major brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s and ALS. Millions of people are counting on us to find cures, whether they know it yet or not.
MSNBC: Today, Michael J. Fox said a cure for Parkinson’s will arrive by 2045. How do we know this is possible?
Sherer: The combination of explosive growth in our understanding of Parkinson’s disease, the development of new technologies with potential to speed drug development, and the increasing engagement of the patient community has moved us tangibly closer to our goal since the foundation opened its doors in 2000. Today, a therapy to intervene in the disease process within 30 years is a real possibility.
MSNBC: What can average Americans do to both raise awareness for and find a cure for Parkinson’s?
Sherer: Our foundation will fund over $70 million in research toward a cure for PD this year, but we see at least $150 million in worthwhile ideas every year. We are working hard to generate greater financial support for our mission – both from Parkinson’s families themselves and from philanthropists motivated to work with a high-impact, pioneering nonprofit. At the same time, we need to continue increasing the flow of volunteer participants, people with or without Parkinson’s, into the research process. More information on all the ways people can help is available at michaeljfox.org.