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Parkinson’s Center Unites Researchers, Clinicians, Patients Against Common Enemy

The tipping point for James Bennett, M.D., Ph.D., came as he listened to an after-dinner address to 70-80 fellow Parkinson’s disease experts from all over the country.

The speaker asked for a show of hands of how many people in the room actually knew someone who had Parkinson’s disease, or had taken care of someone with Parkinson’s disease.

“About six people raised their hands,” Bennett said. “So what that told me was that in this room of very bright investigators who care very much about the science and the physiology of Parkinson’s disease, that hardly any of them knew someone who had it, much less taken care of them.

“I was not surprised, but I was bothered by it,” Bennett recalled. “And I said, ‘This has to change.’”

That was the beginning of an emotional and professional journey for Bennett that culminated in his decision to take his Parkinson’s disease research on a new road by accepting the directorship of the newly formed VCU Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Multidisciplinary Research and Clinical Center.

“The creation of the center, the main goal of the center is to provide a mechanism to alter the trajectory of Parkinson’s disease,” Bennett said. “In order to accomplish that, we will need to understand the disease comprehensively. What has not existed, with one exception, in this country is a center where people who study the molecular structure of Parkinson’s are in the same room or building with people who treat patients, who do clinical research on patients.

“We want to have those individuals regularly in each other’s presence to share ideas and to plan studies.”

Since the VCU Board of Visitors approved formation of the Parkinson’s center in the spring, the center has been rapidly growing out of its birthing stage.

Bennett said $9.2 million has been raised toward an initial funding goal of $10 million. Margaret and FitzGerald Bemiss took the lead initially with a gift of $1 million to establish an endowed chair to assist in the recruitment of an exceptional physician-scientist to serve as the center's director.  Bennett is the first recipient of the endowed chair that bears the names of the Bemisses.  Morgan and Joan Massey have generously established a second endowed chair, the Joan Massey Chair, which gives Bennett the resources needed to recruit an outstanding clinician to the center. Because of the Parkinson’s center’s ambitious agenda Bennett noted that it is likely to be in a perpetual state of fundraising .

Bennett’s own research has resumed in earnest with the recent opening of his laboratory in the Kontos Medical Sciences Building on the MCV Campus. The center’s administrative and fund-raising offices also have found a home in Richmond’s Old City Hall.

 In addition, alliances and collaborative partnerships with the Parkinson's Disease Research, Education and Clinical Center (PADRECC) at the McGuire VA Medical Center are being cemented, and the spear point is being sharpened for an epic assault on Parkinson’s, a debilitating disease characterized, in its severest form, by a gradual inability to move and, for many patients, worsening dementia and depression.

A Clinical-Translational Research Program will be a major component of the center, with a goal of providing a bridge between discoveries emerging from the laboratory and promising treatment therapies to improve the lives of patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, but additionally Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s.

Translational research has become a priority of the National Institutes of Health, according to Bennett, and VCU is becoming nationally known for its efforts.

For example, the NIH recently named VCU the recipient of a $20 million Clinical and Translational Science grant, the largest federal award in the university’s history.

As it addresses the causes and possible therapies for neurodegenerative diseases, the Parkinson’s Center will be working on issues that became personal for Bennett when his mother developed severe Alzheimer’s disease. He said that in its advanced form, Alzheimer’s has a similarity to Parkinson’s, involving movement disorders coupled with memory loss.

“There is significant overlap between the two conditions, particularly at the later stages,” Bennett said, noting that many researchers believe that “if we find a drug or drugs that will help one of these diseases, there’s a pretty good chance it will help the other.”

Studies suggest that between 1.5 million and 2 million Americans have Parkinson’s disease and that between 4 million and 6 million have disabling dementia. The aging of the baby boomer generation may increase those numbers two-to-threefold in coming years.

“The current annual cost to society of $200 billion to provide medical and respite care for the afflicted will increase to unsustainable levels” unless effective therapies are found, Bennett said.

William Maragos, M.D., Ph.D., chief of neurology at the McGuire VA Medical Center and vice chair of the Department of Neurology at VCU, is an expert in Huntington’s disease, and he shares a common passion with Bennett for finding effective new therapies for combating neurodegenerative diseases.

Maragos emphasized that investigators at VCU and at the McGuire VA are united in their desire to provide translational research that will enhance the quality of their ability to treat patients.

“Clinical care can sometimes be very challenging,” Maragos said, “but if you have people that you can share your diagnostic conundrums with or your latest scientific discovery with, it’s actually more fun.

“We don’t talk about fun very much in science and medicine, but it can be -- and it should be,” because in the end it can help produce positive outcomes for patients suffering from dreaded diseases, Maragos said.

Charles F. Bryan Jr., president emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society, has tried to keep fun in his life as he battles Parkinson’s.

Bryan is a formidable fundraiser, and he and a group of other local Parkinson’s patients – who have named their group “The Movers and Shakers” – have dedicated themselves to raising money for VCU’s Parkinson’s center.

Bryan said he’s fighting Parkinson’s with “attitude.”

“Parkinson’s is the enemy. It’ll be glad when I’m gone,” Bryan said.

With the help of VCU’s Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Multidisciplinary Research and Clinical Center, with the help of the McGuire VA Medical Center and with the help of patients like Bryan, Bennett said the outlook for breakthroughs in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases never looked more promising.