Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Michael J. Fox’s quest to find a cure for the Parkinson’s he’s been living with for decades has taken him to the University of Iowa.

The Clinical Trials Statistical Data Management Center (CTSDMC) in the UI College of Public Health has been working with the actor’s Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research since 2009, gathering and analyzing data collected during numerous studies the foundation funds to find a treatment for the disease.

The foundation, established in 2000, is dedicated to finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease through an aggressively funded research agenda, and to ensuring the development of improved therapies for those living with Parkinson’s. Fox, the star of the Back to the Future movies and several TV sitcoms, publicly announced he had the disease in 1998.

Christopher Coffey, director of the center and professor in the College of Public Health, says the relationship with the UI began in 2009, when the Fox Foundation sought out the biostatistics center to help with the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI), a massive clinical study that seeks to find biomarkers for the disease.

PPMI was of a size and scope the foundation had never undertaken, Coffey says, and the center was recommended to the organization’s leaders as a place that was capable of managing and analyzing the massive amounts of data to be collected. Uniquely, Coffey says, the databases from the study are open access, so any researcher in the world working on a cure for Parkinson’s can use them in their work. So far, he says, about 50 papers have been published in scientific journals by researchers not affiliated with the foundation but using data gathered via open access.

PPMI, which started collecting information from Parkinson’s patients in 2010, looks for signs of the disease that doctors can use to more quickly diagnose it. Coffey says that Parkinson’s progresses so slowly, it can take years for an accurate diagnosis. PPMI hopes to find clues that can accelerate the diagnosis.

The study has been ongoing, with about 2,500 subjects contributing data regularly, some of them a part of the study since the project’s start. The study also is web-based, so participants input their own data.

Besides the PPMI study, the UI center is working on two additional projects with the Fox Foundation:

  • A study that looks for the easiest and most reliable way to detect alpha synuclein, a biomarker for Parkinson’s. The study examines various methods for obtaining this marker, including blood test, spinal fluid test, and biopsy.
  • A new research project, announced in November, that will study whether a drug already approved by regulators to treat leukemia could be used by Parkinson’s patients to slow the disease’s progress and possibly reverse its effects. An earlier study conducted by researchers at Georgetown University showed promise, and the new study will use a larger sample size in an attempt to further assess the safety and tolerability of treatment in Parkinson’s patients, as well as to assess whether previous results can be duplicated. While the new study will be led by researchers at Northwestern University, the UI’s CTSDMC will serve as the biostatistics coordinating center and will perform all study analyses. Chelsea Caspell, a biostatistician in the center, will serve as the primary statistician for the trial under Coffey’s guidance.

Coffey says having a strong working relationship with such a well-known organization as the Michael J. Fox Foundation has numerous advantages for the center.

“We get a lot of connections to researchers and funding sources through this connection, and it keeps the UI on the forefront of Parkinson’s research,” he says.