Rahm Emanuel

Fight Against Parkinson’s Takes Hold In Chicago

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April was an important month in the battle against Parkinson’s disease, the second most common neurodegenerative disease.

This certainly was the case in the city of Chicago.

  • First of all, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in proclaiming April Parkinson’s disease awareness month in the city.
  • Additionally, Tanya Simuni, M.D., medical director of Northwestern University’s Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center, was awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct a $16 million Phase III study of the safety and efficacy of the drug isradipine as a potential neuroprotective agent in Parkinson’s disease.

The grant is meaningful, as the study is the only phase III Parkinson’s neuroprotective study currently funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at NIH. The research is being conducted by Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in partnership with the University of Rochester Medical Center. It will be carried out at 56 Parkinson Study Group centers in North America over five years.

Although there are pharmaceutical and alternative therapies available to manage the disease, there currently are no cures or treatments that definitively slow its progression. Researchers are looking for treatments to delay disease progression. Isradipine is a possible solution.

Isradipine already has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a calcium-channel blocker to treat hypertension (high blood pressure). Researchers have demonstrated in animal models that calcium imbalances contribute to brain changes, such as the death of neurons that produce dopamine, a critical chemical messenger that directs a person’s ability to move. When the production of dopamine is impaired, as is the case in Parkinson’s, movement problems develop. It is hypothesized that isradipine will preserve dopamine levels over an extended period of time, thereby slowing the progression of Parkinson’s.  

“If this drug proves to be safe and effective, it will change the way we treat Parkinson’s disease,” said Dr. Simuni, the principal investigator of the study. “The major advantage is isradipine is already widely available and inexpensive and will allow for rapid translation of our research into clinical practice.”

Northwestern researchers, led by D. James Surmeier, the Nathan Smith Davis Professor of Physiology and director of the Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease Research, discovered that calcium entry through a membrane protein blocked by isradipine could be killing dopamine-producing neurons and causing Parkinson’s.

“What the millions living with Parkinson’s disease need is a drug that will halt or slow the progression of their disease,” said Todd Sherer, PhD, CEO of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which began funding isradipine research in 2007. “We’ve invested in isradipine, and we’re glad to see it moving forward with NIH support, because it has shown such potential to do just that.”

Academic colleagues at Feinberg, including Dr. Surmeier, will collaborate with Dr. Simuni on this study. The physiology department headed by Dr. Surmeier is one of the nation’s premier groups studying the physiology of movement disorders.  

The study also is supported by Carematix and Verizon.

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