On December 1, 2019, the first case of human COVID-19 was documented. Less than six weeks later, the genetic sequence was unlocked by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the SARS-Co-V-2 virus. Within five days, an mRNA vaccine was in development. As we pass a year since the first case of COVID-19, several vaccines have been prepared for human use and three former US presidents will be rolling up their sleeves to be vaccinated publicly.
The speed of this scientific achievement will be recorded in history as one of the fastest, most impactful and important medical advancements of our generation – and possibly generations to come. Millions of people will never suffer from the acute or long-lasting effects of SARS-Co-V-2. Hundreds of thousands more will be spared death. The positive impact on this generation and on future generations will be so great that it will be impossible to measure it.
There are, however, other diseases which, if left unchecked, will wreak more havoc than SARS-Co-V-2. Frustratingly, we could be doomed to wait until global economies and healthcare systems are pushed to virtual collapse. One of these diseases is Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease is the world’s fastest growing neurological disorder. It is growing at an unprecedented rate and 1 in 15 people in the United States will be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in their lifetime. In the last decade alone, the number of Americans with Parkinson’s disease has increased by 35% and the growth has been 20% faster than what has been seen in Alzheimer’s disease. This expansion, if continued unchecked, will be medically and economically devastating. We chose a “shuffling” rhythm instead of the warp rate used for COVID-19. What if we accelerate?
There are two excellent examples in medical history of choosing to sprint to the finish line. The first is polio. President Franklin Roosevelt has focused on recuperating his own strength while devoting himself to ending the disease. He formed the National Foundation for Childhood Paralysis, which has grown to become the largest voluntary health organization of all time. In 1954, she raised more money than the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the National Tuberculosis Association combined. He asked Eddie Cantor to use his popular radio show to start March of Dimes to “allow all people, even children, to show our [president] we are with him in this battle. Jack Benny, Bing Crosby and the Lone Ranger have joined the cause and people have launched an unprecedented campaign to send dimes to the White House. The Oval Office expected a slight increase in mail. What happened instead was a tsunami. Ira RT Smith, who worked in the White House mailroom for more than 52 years, recalls: “Two days later the roof fell on me… and the United States government almost stopped working. . ” The efforts galvanized the development of polio vaccination and disease eradication globally.
The second example is HIV. When I was a medical intern, the AIDS service was dark and there was no hope. The infection was widely viewed as a death sentence. Powerful advocates have occupied the FDA building, joined quilts on the National Mall, and placed a larger-than-life condom in Senator Jesse Helm’s home. The net result was $ 3 billion per year in NIH funding. Advocacy as well as funding have changed the trajectory of HIV. Today, Magic Johnson, diagnosed in 1991, is not only alive, but thriving. The AIDS wards have disappeared and hundreds of thousands of people have been largely recovered with effective therapy. Funding for HIV has prevented thousands, if not millions, from developing the disease.
Polio, HIV and COVID-19 have moved at breakneck speed. Parkinson’s disease, on the other hand, still evolves in a glacial fashion. In 2019, Parkinson’s disease received estimated funding of $ 201 million from the NIH. HIV receives $ 3 billion a year. COVID-19 has so far received $ 3.6 billion from the NIH. The rate of development of Parkinson’s disease can change with more investment.
“As with COVID, there are also monoclonal antibodies against Parkinson’s disease.“
You may be surprised to learn that many laboratories have developed a vaccine against Parkinson’s disease. As with COVID, there are also monoclonal antibodies against Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s research can and will learn from COVID. Many international scientists are engaged in the development of new drug targets, new neuromodulatory devices, gene therapies, optogenetics and other “out of the box” approaches to end Parkinson’s disease. To move the needle, we will immediately need to switch from a random play speed to a chain speed. We must commit to multiplying our investments tenfold. The alternative is not a world that anyone would choose to live in.
Michael S. Okun is co-author of the book Ending Parkinson’s Disease, Professor and Executive Director of the Norman Fixel Institute for Neurological Diseases at the University of Florida Health, and Medical Director of the Parkinson’s Foundation.
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