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The Race Against the Clock for a Parkinson’s Treatment

Richard H. Myers, PhD

Director, Professor of Neurology
Boston University School of Medicine

We’d like to take chances and do new and different things, but if you don’t have the resources, you can’t do this.

D. James Surmeier, PhD

Nathan Smith Davis Professor and Chair, Department of Physiology
Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University

It’s one cut on top of another – this will have a devastating impact on the number of people we can train as well as the progress we’re going to make towards new treatment.

Sequestration’s Impact

Impact on Dr. Surmeier’s Lab

  • Peer-reviewed budget would be cut by nearly 15%
  • Terminating 20% of staff on his four projects, or four individuals

Impact on Dr. Myers’ Lab

  • $20,000 cut to Parkinson’s research project
  • In lieu of cutting staff, he has cut back on the critical supplies needed for the experiments

As many as 1.5 million Americans live with Parkinson’s Disease (PD), a degenerative disorder for which there is no cure and limited treatment options. In labs nearly one thousand miles apart, Dr. Richard Myers of Boston University and Dr. James Surmeier of Northwestern University are working to change that, a life-saving quest that is being hampered by sequestration.

Their research, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), focuses both on understanding the causes of Parkinson’s disease and developing a treatment to improve patients’ lives. Surmeier points out that Parkinson’s has become a major public health concern, as well as exacting an economic toll on the nation. “Fiscally, it’s a huge problem,” he said. “The annual health care cost is estimated to be greater than $25 billion.”

Both labs are working towards the next generation of treatments to prevent and improve the lives of patients with Parkinson’s disease.” We haven’t figured out how to slow down diseases like Parkinson’s,” Myers noted. “You have to understand how to prevent brain disease on the front end.”

Surmeier’s lab has already identified a promising drug target, as well as an FDA-approved drug that could interact with that target, potentially slowing the progression of Parkinson’s disease. “We are also working on a new drug that has fewer side effects and is more potent,” he added, “as well as working to develop new therapeutic practices for late stage PD patients.”

Unfortunately, continued progress is severely threatened by the sequester. In 2013, Myers has already been informed that, due to sequestration, his Parkinson’s research project will lose more than $20,000 next year alone, with more dramatic cuts expected in the next years of the grant; cuts he’s worried will impact his ability to do the best science.

“We’d like to take chances and do new and different things, but if you don’t have the resources, you can’t do this,” he noted, adding the cuts will not even allow him to do the original scope of work proposed to NIH. “I don’t like to compromise my studies as a scientist.”

Surmeier paints an even grimmer picture. “One out of every five people working on this project would have to be let go. This cut will fall hardest on junior people, the people we were training to lead in the next generation,” he said. The cuts will also result in the scope of the project bring reduced, and he notes that there will be more cuts if NIH is forced to operate under a Continuing Resolution. “It’s one cut on top of another – this will have a devastating impact on the number of people we can train as well as the progress we’re going to make towards new treatment.”

“If I was a Parkinson’s disease patient, and the clock was ticking for me, I would be really frustrated by this,” said Surmeier. “Time is of the essence for patients who have this disease.” He notes that sequestration is likely to delay research progress, causing key studies to take “many years, instead of a year or two.”

Myers expresses his own frustration, “What I really want to do is push hard and make progress as rapidly as I can,” he said. “Because there are people relying on us to make the exciting discoveries that can make a difference in their lives or the lives of their relatives.”