Archive for December, 2009

Message from the editor

Welcome to e-ParkinsonPost!

This issue looks at research from the perspectives of clinician-researchers, clinical trial participants and ethicists, among others. We also alert you to exciting new research projects funded by Parkinson Society Canada.

You will find a link to our new information sheet on Parkinson’s medications and a summary of novel and promising treatments that are currently in the pipeline.

Our thanks to Teva Neuroscience for sponsoring this issue of e-ParkinsonPost.

Your comments, questions and story ideas are always welcome. You can send them to

We wish you all the best of the season.

Season's Greeting This year’s Season’s Greetings card was designed by Leo Robichaud. To view more of his work and that of other talented people with Parkinson’s, visit Creative Expressions.

Marjie Zacks

Bench to bedside: the challenges

We have asked three clinician-researchers to outline some of the challenges of getting new therapies from the lab to the person with Parkinson’s.

The drug development process is lengthy. “The process of going through all the pharmacological studies in basic science and in different types of animals takes a long time,” says Dr. Michel Panisset, a neurologist and associate clinical professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Montreal. “We have to make sure of the mechanics of the drug and see that it doesn’t kill any living being before we try it out in healthy human volunteers. A large number of compounds fail one of these tests prior to getting to humans.”

Add to that the clinical trials to ensure that the treatments are tolerable and effective, first in healthy volunteers and then in people with Parkinson’s. “There are no really good shortcuts we can use without jeopardizing the safety of the medications,” says Panisset.

Animals don’t get Parkinson’s. “We have to make them Parkinsonian by giving them drugs and killing brain cells manually but that’s not what happens in reality,” says Dr. Mandar Jog, director of the Movement Disorders Program at the London Health Sciences Centre. “The complexity of the animal system is very different from that of the human brain. Often, the chemical or treatment you’re studying in an animal doesn’t transfer easily to the human world, so what works there may not work in humans.”

Additionally, Jog notes:

The brain is very complicated. “The brain has over one trillion connections. It’s not like other organs, such as a kidney, that you can remove and replace.”

Most bench work is done by scientists who know little about clinical medicine; they don’t see patients. “For scientists to translate their lab findings into the human world requires that clinicians get involved, but often, clinicians get involved late and are not able to interpret the scientific data or take it for granted. We need more people who are both basic scientist and clinician, who have the background to understand the lab language and translate it. Or, at least, there should be strong collaboration with clinicians.”

There is also an issue of how do you define bench? “If by bench, you mean simply asking research questions, then you can ask clinically relevant questions, as we just did in our recent research looking at swallowing and gum chewing. We didn’t test it in animals and we didn’t try to figure out what the basic mechanism of sensory neural control for swallowing is in an animal model and then test that hypothesis at the bench level. We simply figured that people say that gum chewing is good for teeth. Why not give gum to people with Parkinson’s and see if it helps them? We did and we’ve shown that swallowing improves. We don’t understand yet how that happens but this is also a form of bench to bedside research.”

Both the public and scientists want early success. “There is a challenge to do the science so diligently that you’re as sure as you can be before jumping the gun and saying, this looks good in a few rats, let’s try to do a big clinical trial.”

Clinical trials are an artificial scenario. “No matter how much you try to randomize patients, there is still a bias in selecting patients. As well, the patients who are willing to participate in trials are motivated people. They may have a different chemistry in their brains from the people who are not motivated to participate; hence the disease impact may be different. Also, many new drugs work well in clinical trials, even in humans, but when the drugs are given to people in the general population, where the variation of the disease in patients is much higher, the results aren’t as impressive.”

A huge challenge of bench to bedside is patients asking, on a regular basis, about unvalidated claims of interventions [treatments] that are completely untested. “Pursuing these avenues takes away important funding from research based on diligent, well-thought-out scientific questions. Passion-driven science is likely the biggest hurdle.”

Dr. Oksana Suchowersky, professor and director of the Movement Disorders Program in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Calgary adds her perspective:

Parkinson’s is a very slowly progressive condition and symptoms are quite variable from person to person. “That is why we need to do clinical trials on a large number of patients, and the trials have to run for several years, particularly those for neuroprotection. We also have to follow the scientific method, with placebo control. This is both to make sure that the drug or compound works, as well as determining that it is not harmful.”

“We still do not know the cause of Parkinson’s which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to find a cure.”

Dr. Michel Panisset

Dr. Mandar Jog

Dr. Mandar Jog

Dr Oksana Suchowersky

Dr. Oksana Suchowersky

Participating in clinical trials

First Person – Else Manz

Else ManzAt 58, I was proud of my healthy diet, active lifestyle and my near-empty medicine chest which held only calcium and vitamin D. Life was good. However, I had also spent a full year quietly reviewing many sources, including my nursing texts, to determine the probable cause of the resting tremor in my right hand.

On March 31, 1998 I had my consultation with the local neurologist. It didn’t take him long to confirm my suspicions. He asked permission to call a Saskatoon neurologist who was looking for people who were newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s and not taking medication to participate in a clinical drug trial.

The Saskatoon neurologist sent me an informed consent document to review. It described an investigational drug that had already been tried on a small group of patients. Now my questions took centre stage: If I do not participate in the study, what are my options for treatment? Does the trial drug resemble the makeup or action of one already available? Would the drug delay the progression of Parkinson’s? Does excretion through the liver and kidney mean the possibility of a negative effect on those organs?

I was impressed by the gentleness, thoughtfulness and patience with which my questions and those of my husband were answered. What did I have to lose? I could experience side-effects but there was also the possibility this could be a win-win opportunity.

May 6, 1998 marked my first visit as a participant in the study. I understood that I would be randomly assigned to one of three groups during the initial six months of the study: participants receiving 1 mg of the active drug; participants receiving 2 mg of the active drug; or participants on placebo.

After 28 days, I would return for a check of vital signs, have blood and urine samples taken and undergo neurological testing. Five more visits were scheduled during the first six months of the study. I thought the monitoring process couldn’t be better.

Since my husband and I were both working full time, we decided to treat these 500 km round trips, from Regina to Saskatoon, as family holidays. We would take a different route home from each appointment and have dinner, shopping trips or visits along the way.

Following the initial study, I was asked and agreed to participate in additional studies and sub-studies. The most difficult requirement of one study was having to avoid eating any foods containing tyramine. This meant having to give up some of my favourites such as pizza and lasagna.

In 2003, I learned that I had been taking the active drug. I later received copies of the research published in the scientific journal. Articles concluded that the positives certainly seemed to outweigh the negatives.

When Health Canada approved the drug, I felt fortunate that I had the privilege of access to the medication for the previous eight years. The study came to a close in 2006 but I remain on the medication to this day.


First Person – Penny McDowell

Penny McDowellIt was the shaking hand that caught my doctor’s attention. I was in his office for my regular checkup but he was saying, “I guess I’d better send you to a neurologist because it looks like you could have Parkinson’s.” I was totally shocked on that last day of February, 2005.

By the time I got a formal diagnosis, in April 2006, I was experiencing a few more symptoms such as muscle stiffness and sciatica-like pain. I had also lost my sense of smell and wasn’t as confident on my feet; my balance was a bit shaky at times. I was feeling a lot of anxiety, too.

My neurologist told me there was a research study looking for candidates in the early stages of Parkinson’s and asked if I would be willing to participate. He thought I might be a good candidate because my symptoms were not that severe.

I read the information the clinic gave me and did my own research online. I learned that the investigational drug had been tested in other countries and had shown some promising results. I decided to be proactive and join the trial. I thought this would be a good opportunity to help myself with one of the latest Parkinson’s therapies while contributing to Parkinson’s research.

One of the greatest benefits of being in the trial was the amount of time the doctors and nurses spent with me during the follow-up visits which lasted up to two hours. It was a tremendous learning experience spending that much time with people who were knowledgeable about Parkinson’s. You feel supported and more confident when you know what’s happening and that you’re being treated. I felt better being in the trial and having that kind of care. The resources were also phenomenal. There were neurologists, nurses, a social worker, occupational therapist and physiotherapist. Everything for movement disorders was under one roof.

The original clinical trial has ended but I am in a follow-up study. My neurologist feels that I’m doing well. I still have a tremor in my left hand and leg but haven’t experienced any major incapacitation after four years on the drug. I’m on no other medications for Parkinson’s and I’m still functioning well day to day, if a bit slower. I try to maintain a healthy lifestyle and pace myself.


For more information on clinical trials, including benefits and risks, questions to ask and a description of the phases of clinical trials, visit the Parkinson Society Canada web page, Clinical Trials and Research Studies.

Benefits and risks of participating in a clinical trial


Clinical trials that are well-designed and well-executed offer excellent opportunities for eligible participants to:
• Play an active role in their own health care.
• Obtain referrals to a study site.
• Engage care partners as companions in care.
• Gain access to new research treatments before they are widely available.
• Obtain expert medical, sometimes multidisciplinary, care at leading health care facilities during the trial.
• Help others by contributing to medical research.
• Enhance personal knowledge of a medical condition.


There are risks to clinical trials.
• Depending on the study design, there may be no guarantee that the participant will receive the active ingredient.
• There may be unpleasant, serious or even life-threatening side effects to experimental treatment.
• The experimental treatment may not be effective for the participant.
• The research may require collection of data, for example, genetic information, that could potentially cause psychological or informational harm.
• The research criteria may require lifestyle modifications, for example, dietary changes.
• The protocol may require more of the participant’s time and attention than would a non-protocol treatment, including trips to the study site, more treatments, hospital stays or complex dosage requirements.
• The experimental drug may not be approved by Health Canada and, if approved, may not be covered under provincial drug formularies.

Ethical Issues in Clinical Trial Participation

Ann Heesters
Director of Ethics and Spiritual Care
Toronto Rehabilitation Institute

Marleen Van Laethem
Research Ethicist
Toronto Rehabilitation Institute

What is a major misunderstanding people have about clinical trials?

A clinical trial is a research study testing a new potential treatment. “Therapeutic misconception” is the name ethicists give to the misconception or confusion people have that what’s being offered is always therapeutic (or for their benefit). Let’s say, you have been newly-diagnosed and your healthcare provider says, “These are the current available treatments. They all have some potential problems or side-effects; however, we have a research study looking at something new.” The patient may think, these are all potential therapies for me, but if they look more closely at the details of the clinical trial, they may find that the study is going to compare a new treatment against placebo, which is essentially a non-treatment. It is important that people read the details of clinical trials very carefully.

Where does conflict of interest arise?

One form of conflict of interest is known as a tension of obligations. A physician-researcher wears two hats: As a physician, the primary obligation is to recommend the best treatment for the patient. But as a researcher, the primary obligation is to the integrity of the study, which could mean that half the patients will go on placebo as a control and the other half will get the active new substance. The patients on placebo may later wonder: Why did my doctor put me in that group? However, researchers typically don’t have control over that. Participants are assigned to groups through mass randomization to try to eliminate bias.

Conflict of interest may also relate to financial incentives. A researcher may have a patent on a new molecule or new device that is being tested. He/she may accept speaker’s fees, or act as an advisor to the company sponsoring the research. In cases like these, financial interests may influence judgement. An interest in making money shouldn’t take precedence over sound research principles or the obligation to care for patients, and most of the time the potential for conflict will be manageable with appropriate disclosure. However, financial interests should be described in the informed consent document because they may affect a participant’s desire to be involved in a trial.

What is the purpose of informed consent?

“Informed consent” means providing people with all the information they need to make a full decision concerning whether they want to be in a study. Many ethicists refer to it as “informed choice.” It has to be voluntary. You make a choice based on all the information that is relevant to you. The information should include the procedures you have to undergo, the time commitment, the known side-effects and any other potential harms. These may include physical harm, psychological harm and, in this computer age, informational harm. For example, if participation in a genetic study could have insurance or employment implications for the participant, that risk should be spelled out in the consent form, in plain language, so that people know there is a potential risk to their privacy.

Is the informed consent document a contract?

No. Contracts have binding qualities. They impose obligations. Informed consent documents are not binding at any stage. Participants must be able to withdraw from a trial without damaging the relationship with their clinical team and without offending the researchers or upsetting the hospital or organization sponsoring the research.

Can a trial participant withdraw at any time?

In principle, you can withdraw from a study at any time. However, if a study includes a surgical procedure, and the procedure has already taken place, the surgery cannot be undone. A person can say: “I don’t want to continue with this study. I don’t want you to continue collecting my data and I don’t want my data being used in your research analysis.”

Is the use of placebo ethical?

Many hold the view that when there is an established effective therapy for a condition it would be unethical to place some participants on a placebo. Ethically, it is easier to defend comparing an experimental drug against the current established effective therapy. If researchers believe that it is essential to compare the experimental drug against a placebo they must meet stringent conditions. (It may be argued, for example, that a sub-set of patients find current treatment intolerable or ineffective or there may be no other way to isolate the effects of the new drug.)

Another way that a placebo could be used is to add it onto existing treatment. If there is an established effective therapy and there are two arms in the trial: group A gets the established effective therapy plus placebo and group B gets the established effective therapy plus the experimental drug. In this scenario, the placebo arm is not placed at a disadvantage.

What happens if the trial reveals new side-effects?

Those running trials are obliged to share new information concerning side-effects which may affect research subjects’ desire to continue to participate.

Should participants have access to beneficial treatment after a trial ends?

People often enrol in trials hoping to get early access to experimental treatments. Treatments can be expensive but in clinical trials they are usually provided free of charge. If a research participant finds an experimental treatment to be beneficial, he/she may want to continue taking the treatment until it is Health Canada-approved and available on the market. Some may even argue that they are owed access because they have placed themselves at risk by participating in a trial. At minimum, the informed consent form should state clearly whether or not the person will have access to the treatment after the trial concludes. Researchers don’t want to make promises that they can’t keep. Also, there is no guarantee that the treatment will be found to be effective.

Can a trial participant sue?

If people have been negligent in the way they conducted the trial, or if the research ethics board has been negligent in reviewing the trial proposal, then trial participants can exercise any and all of their legal rights. You don’t waive your legal rights by agreeing to participate in a trial.


Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans

World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki
(Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects)

Ann Heesters

Ann Heesters

Marleen Van Laethem

Marleen Van Laethem

Parkinson’s Medications… What you need to know! New information sheet

This information sheet will help you understand what types of medication are available to treat your Parkinson’s symptoms, the potential side effects, and the importance of working closely with your healthcare professional.

Download pdf.

New directions in Parkinson’s treatments

Slowing down or modifying disease progression

Current drugs for Parkinson’s treat the symptoms but do not stop the progression. One of the biggest investments in Parkinson’s research is in trying to find a drug that will slow down or modify the disease progression.


The drug rasagiline (Azilect®) was studied recently to determine if it could slow down the rate of progression in Parkinson’s. Researchers conducted a double-blind, delayed-start trial in which 1176 people who were not on Parkinson medications were randomly assigned to either receive rasagiline (at a dose of 1 mg per day or 2 mg per day) for 72 weeks or placebo for 36 weeks, followed by rasagiline (at a dose of 1 mg per day or 2 mg per day) for 36 weeks (the delayed-start group).

The study results were mixed: people who had an early start with rasagiline at a dose of 1 mg per day had a smaller increase in worsening of their Parkinson’s symptoms than the placebo group; however, early treatment with rasagiline at a dose of 2 mg per day did not show similar results.

The study concluded: “Early treatment with rasagiline at a dose of 1 mg per day provided benefits that were consistent with a possible disease-modifying effect, but early treatment with rasagiline at a dose of 2 mg per day did not. Because the two doses were associated with different outcomes, the study results must be interpreted with caution.”

The study’s authors noted that it will be important to determine whether these results can be confirmed and whether the benefits seen at 18 months will endure and translate into reduced cumulative disability in clinically meaningful areas such as impairment of gait and balance and cognitive function.

A Double-Blind, Delayed-Start Trial of Rasagiline in Parkinson’s Disease
New England Journal of Medicine 361:13 September 24, 2009


Continuous dopaminergic stimulation

The standard oral medication for handling motor fluctuations in Parkinson’s is levodopa which is a short-acting drug. However, for some people, levodopa’s beneficial effects wear off before the next dose of medication is due. Infusion therapies for Parkinson’s aim to provide a more continuous stimulation of the brain receptors for dopamine, when oral medications are no longer effective. This type of treatment is known as continuous dopaminergic stimulation.

Infusion therapies / DUODOPATM

Infusion therapies have been examined in Europe and the UK, in the form of pumps that infuse the drugs apomorphine or lisuride into the tissue under the skin where the medication is then absorbed into the bloodstream.

“What’s new is there is now an alternative infusion technology that uses the best available drug for oral use, levodopa, but infuses it through the duodenum, so it goes into the bowel, on a continuous basis,” says Dr. Anthony Lang, director of the Morton and Gloria Shulman Movement Disorder Centre at Toronto Western Hospital.

In this technology, Duodopa, a form of levodopa/carbidopa that is concentrated into a gel, is pumped through a small tube that is placed through the stomach and into the duodenum.

One advantage of this style of medication delivery is that “you can formulate the exact dose, at certain times of the day, in a much more precise way than when using oral preparations; so you can adjust the dose by 1 mg rather than in 50 mg steps,” says Dr. Mark Guttman, director of the Centre for Movement Disorders in Markham, Ontario.

However, Duodopa therapy also has some drawbacks: it requires a surgical procedure, which could lead to complications; the equipment, such as the pump and tubing, could be subject to technical problems; managing and maintaining the equipment and medication requires careful monitoring and nursing support; some people might find it burdensome having to carry a pump at all times.

“It’s a complicated way of giving a medication, so the average person with Parkinson’s would not be a candidate because they would do well with taking oral medications three to five times a day,” says Lang. “It’s better suited to people who are taking levodopa many times a day and have bad and often unpredictable motor fluctuations.”

Guttman notes, “It could be seen as an option for people who are considering deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery but either don’t qualify for DBS or don’t want to take the risks. This may be a reasonable strategy for small numbers of people.”

Duodopa has been approved by Health Canada under the Notice of Compliance with Conditions policy.

It is not yet available in Canada and is not funded by provincial governments. The biggest stumbling block for all the infusion technologies is likely the expense. Duodopa, for instance, is expected to cost $60,000 – $70,000 a year.

There are two sides to the issue.

Lang says, “The challenge is that the studies that have been done on this form of treatment are rather small and, because of the complex nature of the treatment and the way it’s provided, it’s very difficult to do the standard randomized, double-blind controlled studies that are done with the usual medication therapy.”

“When these drugs– apomorphine, lisuride and Duodopa – are provided in very controlled, careful, experienced environments, as is the case in Europe and elsewhere, patients have shown very striking improvements; so I think that these treatments are quite valuable and should be available to patients in Canada and the United States. Importantly, I am not advocating widespread, uncontrolled use of these treatments but rather limited availability for carefully selected patients through a small number of experienced movement disorders centres.”

Guttman is among the voices calling for a more measured approach to the introduction of Duodopa in Canada. He sees a need for “more formal studies, especially in Canada, so researchers and clinicians can get some experience with it.” He acknowledges, “We’ve never had anything in Parkinson’s that costs $60,000 a year for the rest of a person’s life; so the provincial health authorities want to make sure that there is good utility for it and that there is an economic model that can show that this will be money well spent.”

Enhancing the effect of dopamine

A new monoamine-oxidase B inhibitor

Monoamine-oxidase-B inhibitors (MAO-B compounds) enhance the effect of dopamine by preventing its breakdown. International phase III clinical trials are underway for a new investigative drug to determine its effectiveness and safety as an add-on dose to either levodopa or dopamine agonist medications.

Looking ahead…

Dr. Jonathan Brotchie, senior scientist at the Toronto Western Research Institute, University Health Network, highlights three promising drugs that are currently being studied and that could change Parkinson’s treatment:


Fipamezole is a drug which, when taken with dopamine medication, appears to do two things: reduce the problem of dyskinesia and increase the time the dopamine medication works. “I think this could change the way we treat Parkinson’s in a relatively short time,” says Brotchie.


The experimental drug BIIB014 is one of the first non-dopamine approaches to treating Parkinson’s. “It reverses a different chemical imbalance in the brain than our current therapies,” says Brotchie. “Because it is non-dopaminergic, we anticipate that it won’t have the same side-effects as current dopamine therapy.”

Preliminary studies have shown that BIIB014 can successfully do two things: One, alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms, when given on its own. “That’s probably the first time we’ve had a drug which isn’t replacing dopamine that can do that,” says Brotchie. Two, it appears that, when added to existing therapies, BIIB014 can improve the action of those therapies, decreasing the “off” time between the action of each pill. “This means that you either have to take fewer tablets every day or each tablet works longer.”

PYM50028 / Cogane

PYM50028, also known as Cogane. “Cogane has potential to restore the dopamine system in the brain, not just provide symptomatic benefit,” says Brotchie. “It could be disease-modifying, meaning it has the potential to change the course of the disease and maybe even reverse the disease progression.”

For the past decade, scientists have been exploring ways to increase the levels of glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) in the brain in Parkinson’s to help brain cells survive or even grow back. GDNF is a protein that is made in the brain and helps brain cells grow when the brain is developing or recovering from injury. Previous approaches have involved injecting GDNF into the brain through surgery or gene therapy. However, Cogane offers the possibility of delivering GDNF to the brain via a pill. The idea is that after you swallow the pill, the drug gets into the brain and then switches on the brain’s ability to make GDNF.

Noting that the animal data and early human data on safety and dosage look promising, Brotchie says, “I think Cogane offers the best hope today for a drug that could actually reverse the disease. And if you could reverse the disease early enough, you could change its impact on your life. Parkinson’s would then be something that you could be diagnosed with but, if you received the drug early enough and if the drug lives up to its promise, you could imagine that it might start to reverse symptoms and even reverse the disease process.”

Dr. Anthony Lang

Dr. Anthony Lang

Dr. Jonathan Brotchie

Dr. Jonathan Brotchie

Dr. Mark Guttman

Dr. Mark Guttman

Charitable registration number 10809 1786 RR0001
All material related to Parkinson's disease contained in Parkinson Post is solely for the information of the reader. It should not be used for treatment purposes. Specific articles reflect the opinion of the writer and are not necessarily the opinion of PSC.

Twitter Updates