Michael J. Fox testfies before a Congressional committee on Parkinson’s research. His foundation is dedicated to ensuring the development of a cure for Parkinson’s disease within this decade.An Israeli neurologist has been chosen by Michael J. Fox, the Hollywood actor who was stricken at a young age with Parkinson’s disease, to help allocate the funds in his $100 million research foundation aimed to help fight the disease.

Prof. Eldad Melamed, chief of neurology at the Rabin Medical Center-Beilinson Campus in Petah Tikva was recently invited to join ten leading Parkinson’s scientists from around the world to be on the advisory board of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Melamed is also a professor of medicine at Tel Aviv University Medical School.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research is dedicated to ensuring the development of a cure for Parkinson’s disease within this decade through an aggressively funded research agenda.

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s disease. It is a motor system disorder in which dopamine-producing brain cells are compromised. This loss of dopamine causes nerve cells to fire out of control, leaving patients unable to control their movements in a normal manner.
It is estimated that the disease currently affects at least 500,000 Americans. There are 20 new cases of Parkinson’s Disease per 100,000 population per year.

The star of the hit situation comedies Family Ties, Spin City, and the Back to the Future films, Fox stunned Americans in 1998 when he revealed publicly that he had been living with the disease for the past seven years. Upon disclosing his condition in 1998, he committed himself to the campaign for increased Parkinson’s research. Fox announced his retirement from Spin City in January 2000, effective upon the completion of his fourth season and 100th episode, and since then, has devoted himself primarily to his foundation’s work.

“In the last couple of years, I’ve gone from talking to my agent on a cellular phone to discussing cellular biology with some of the world’s leading scientists,” Fox wrote in his autobiography Lucky Man. “It’s a whole different world.”

While generally wary of the combination of celebrity and science, Melamed says that he is impressed by Fox’s initiative. “This is a sincere, well-intentioned man, who was stricken with the disease at a young age, and at the height of his career. Instead of doing nothing, he is trying to harness his celebrity for the good of science,” Melamed told ISRAEL21c.

The advisory committee Melamed is joining will decide on the direction the foundation’s research will take, examine the cause of the disease, and improve the ability to diagnose and treat it.

“It is a great honor and rare opportunity to study the disease in a comprehensive and in-depth way. There is no doubt that it is one of the most important committees on which I have the privilege to serve,” Melamed said.

According to the Michael J. Fox Foundation website, “the foundation seeks to hasten progress further by awarding grants that help guarantee that new and innovative research avenues are thoroughly funded and explored.” Its stated goal is to find a cure for the disease by the year 2010.

Melamed was chosen by the foundation for his world renown in Parkinson’s research. He currently serves as the head of a team involved in accelerated development of a new drug which will address the neural degeneration that occurs in Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis. So far, the molecule from which the drug will be produced has proven safe and effective in slowing the progression of such neurological diseases in lab tests on animals.

Melamed explains that a range of disorders “including epilepsy, migraines, stroke, vertigo, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and of course, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s are all related to the degeneration of neurons in the brain.

While there are a number of contributing factors like aging, genetics, and environment, Melamed’s team has zeroed in on oxygen. Some degeneration is caused by what he called “oxidative stress” in the brain, which causes toxic substances to accumulate thus accelerating degeneration.

Many have spoken of providing anti-oxidants to the brain to slow down the degeneration – but there are obstacles. “There is what is called the blood-brain barrier. The brain does not let just any molecule in the blood to go to the brain. There is a safety net that only lets certain molecules in,” the Israeli neurologist said.

Melamed led an Israeli team whose breakthrough was designing anti-oxidant molecules capable of crossing this barrier. In experiments with rats and mice, the molecules have appeared to be effective in controlling deterioration.

There are no guarantees that drugs developed from this research will be able to slow down or totally halt degeneration — a goal which Melamed refers to as “the Holy Grail” of Parkinson’s research – but it offers a promising direction.