Clinical trials for Parkinson’s are saving my life

Even when there’s no cure, participation has its benefits; find out how you can get involved — and check out new research

Bret ParkerWhen I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at age 38, l felt that I had lost control over my fate. Before that moment, I could pretty much set my sights on any goal and know that with hard work, I would accomplish it. Having a type-A personality and being a lawyer, for me life had been a series of plans all executed on schedule.

Getting the news that I had a disease that still lacked a cure meant that my health was largely out of my hands. It was completely frustrating. I quickly realized that there was one thing I could do to make a difference potentially for myself but certainly for the millions of other patients with Parkinson’s – participate in clinical trials to try to find better treatments and a cure.

Around the world, 40 percent to 70 percent of clinical trials face delays because they cannot recruit enough volunteers, including healthy patients to serve as controls. I wasn’t even sure how to get involved, but luckily the Michael J. Fox Foundation created the Fox Trial Finder, which allows people to sign up and get information on trials that meet the criteria they set. I logged on and set the parameters for what I wanted.

As a young Parkinson’s patient, I wasn’t eligible for certain trials. And because my symptoms are still in the early stages, I’m not yet interested in trying experimental drugs. I began looking for observational clinical trialsin which researchers observe participants by monitoring their health over a period of time. These studies provide researchers with data that advances our understanding of Parkinson’s and how to treat the disease. By participating in trials, I regained a sense control over my health and found many reasons to be hopeful for better treatments and ultimately a cure.

Tracking our symptoms with wristwatches

The most recent clinical trial I participated in was one of the coolest. For four days, I wore two wristwatches that tracked my movement and recorded data on my symptoms, such as tremor, stiffness and sleep disruption. Intel and the Michael J. Fox Foundation were teaming up in a multiphase research study using a new big data analytics platform to detect patterns in data collected from wearable technologies used to monitor symptoms to help develop better treatments and consistent delivery of medicines. More than 300 observations per second were recorded. Subsequently, other wearable technology research projects have been announced, including one involving the new Apple watch.

Trials can be challenging

Other studies I joined were a little tougher. One involved my trying to walk while carrying something (which can be particularly difficult for people with Parkinson’s). The goal of this trial was to explore how the second task affects different parts of typical movement activities like walking straight, turning or getting up and down from a chair, and how that relates to cognitive functions of attention. For example, when I was asked to do math calculations out loud while walking, it slowed me down and stiffened my movement.

In another, the researchers snipped a tiny piece of tiny skin off my arm. The goal of this trial, by the New York Stem Cell Foundation, was to obtain adequate numbers of the actual type of human cell affected by specific diseases in the case of Parkinson’s dopaminergic neurons. Stem cells carrying mutations of the genes responsible for Parkinson’s provide a source for developing accurate human cell-based models for the disease.

The most challenging trial I participated in, but perhaps the most gratifying, was one studying cognition in Parkinson’s patients – which only recently has been the focus of studies. This trial involved multiple visits, going off my medication at times and getting various scans done (such as an MRI and a PET scan) – two of which required me to be injected with a radioactive chemical. I even had to carry a special letter with me when traveling after an appointment in case I set off radiation detectors when crossing a bridge coming back into Manhattan.

Bret Parker finishes a triathlon in 2014 to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.The researchers used advanced imaging methods to study how Parkinson’s alters brain regions involved in cognition and how current treatments for the disease affect these same regions. Because the study involved testing my cognitive abilities, I had to perform various cognitive tests such as completing puzzles, memorizing lists of words and drawing various shapes that were shown to me. Needless to say, on some of these I felt so completely like an idiot that I would crack up laughing. I was relieved when afterwards the researcher told me that some of the tests were intentionally challenging.

Healthy people can do trials, too

I’ve been very lucky to have so many friends and family members support Parkinson’s research by donating money to fundraising events. (My latest is a climb of the tallest peak in Colorado.)

However, most people do not realize that they also can help find a cure by donating their time to research. Most of the Parkinson’s research studies need people without Parkinson’s disease to serve in control groups. You can choose trials that take just a little time and effort, or a lot. For example it can be as easy as answering some questions and taking a memory/cognition test for a half hour or as invasive as agreeing to undergo a spinal tap several times. And there are plenty of opportunities in the middle, such as donating blood, getting an MRI or donating a piece of skin.

On the Fox Trial Finder, you can set the parameters to show trials that need controls.

Participating in clinical trials is a direct way to contribute to finding a cure. Especially during Parkinson’s Awareness Month, I encourage everyone who is interested in finding a cure – whether they or a friend or family member has Parkinson’s disease – to go onto the Fox Trial Finder. As I’ve found with my own involvement in research, the participation and small contribution of time is paid back tenfold by the hope it inspires in millions of people with Parkinson’s and all of the people who care about them.

Related stories

Fox Trial Finder

The Fox Trial Finder was created by the Michael J. Fox Foundation to get more people to take part in clinical trials — people with Parkinson’s as well as control participants who do not have Parkinson’s. Read more.


Video: Why participate in Parkinson’s Research?

New research studies on Parkinson’s Disease

Elsevier has made the following studies freely available for three months, until July 22, 2015:

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Bret Parker (@bretparker) is a member of the Patient Council of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and Executive Director of the New York City Bar Association (although the views expressed herein are only his personal opinions). He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s over eight years ago at age 38.

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