Exactly one month before the public release of a documentary on Michael J. Fox and his life with Parkinson’s disease (PD), the actor’s research foundation announced a landmark discovery – a novel test that can biologically diagnose the disease in live patients, even before symptoms emerge.
The test, validated by the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI) and described in The Lancet Neurology on April 12, opens the door to transformative science and the chance that the “Back to the Future” actor will be remembered years from now for a PD cure rather than a DeLorean time machine.
“They’ve had a profound impact,” said Amy Amara, MD, of The Michael J. Fox Foundation’s influence on PD research worldwide, including at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “It has led to an explosion of findings in the literature,” said Amara, a Parkinson’s researcher and professor of neurology at the CU School of Medicine.
A family shot from "Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie" on AppleTV+.
The newly discovered tool, called the α-synuclein seeding amplification assay (αSyn-SAA), can detect pathology in spinal fluid. “It’s been known for a long time that alpha synuclein is abnormal in Parkinson’s disease, so this allows us to detect that abnormality,” Amara said. “Previously, you could detect it only by doing a brain autopsy, which, obviously, we can’t do in life.”
Amara and her colleagues have conducted research using the PPMI biorepository and had research projects funded through the foundation, said Amara, a member of the CU Movement Disorders Center. “And, of course, the foundation has enhanced public awareness about Parkinson’s disease.”
Having the star power of Fox, a much-loved actor who came to fame in the 1980s beginning as the witty Alex Keaton on the TV series “Family Ties” and then in the blockbuster “Back to the Future,” boosts attention to the progressively deteriorating movement disorder. With much media fanfare, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” premiered on Apple TV+ on May 12.
In the following Q&A, Amara shares more about the discovery and the PPMI.