Outfoxing Parkinson’s

Michael J. Fox at MaRS
Michael J. Fox at MaRS

“I don’t have a PhD or an MBA. I only had to be smart enough to find people smarter than me — and that was easy.”

Thus began Michael J. Fox, the world’s most famous Parkinson’s patient, whose disarming charm has brought huge profile to the complex neurodegenerative disorder he has battled publicly since 1998.

Appearing at a morning news conference at MaRS last week — a prelude to a research update and gala fundraising dinner starring Bryan Adams that raised over $500,000 for Toronto Western Hospital Foundation – MJF laid out the simple philosophy driving the research efforts of his eponymous foundation:

“We go where the science is… and the road to the patient is not always paved. I make no apologies that we’re research focused. There’s lots of room for education and support services for the PD community…The only thing we’re in competition with is whatever is causing these (neurological) cells to die.”

MJF was referring to some (mild and ephemeral) criticism that his foundation’s newly minted charitable status in Canada could potentially siphon donations from equally worthy causes in patient education and support. There is lots of room for all aspects of the fight against Parkinson’s, MJF stressed.

Now in its 10th year of operation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research has funded more than $150M in research worldwide, with 250 grants currently under management out of over 800 proposals submitted each year from around the world.

Their model of directed research should sound familiar to entrepreneurs: identify a gap in the market and aggressively try to fill it. In the case of the MJF Foundation, a comprehensive audit of PD research worldwide found plenty of government-funded/academic discovery science as well as industry-funded clinical research. The Foundation saw a clear gap in the continuum between the two, however, and set about to bridge that gap by focusing on translational research and offering a rapid-response fund designed to encourage scientists to take on high-risk, high-reward projects.

As Katie Hook, CEO of the MJF Foundation, described it’s not just grant money the Foundation offers but a range of support that it believes translational (vs. discovery) research needs more of, if it’s going to be successful: effective project management, interdisciplinary feedback and diligent milestone tracking.

Among the founding members of the foundation’s scientific advisory board is Toronto neurosurgeon Andres Lozano, an expert in deep-brain stimulation for the treatment of Parkinson’s, and part of a renowned PD research cluster based here in Toronto. Two of Lozano’s colleagues – neurologist Anthony Lang and stem cell biologist Gordon Keller – were on-hand at the news conference, offering high-level outlines of the many angles from which their research is probing Parkinson’s and other related neurodegenerative diseases.

For his part, Keller took the opportunity to turn down the temperature somewhat on the overheated therapeutic expectations around stem cells, which he characterized as powerful research and potential drug discovery tools but still a good long way from the clinic.

But it was MJF, whose optimism and wonder continues to shine through despite the clear physical challenges he faces every day, who kept the message of hope front and centre: “The brain is like space or the depths of the ocean – it’s this frontier that we don’t understand…

“But we’re finding the right questions – and that’s important if we’re going to find the right answers.”