My father and both of his sisters were afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder that affects movement by hindering walking and affecting motor control of the hands and head. So the question “Is Parkinson’s a Jewish genetic disorder?” has personal meaning to me.
On December 12, a program addressing that question and other topics related to Parkinson’s disease will take place at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. Dr. Lana Chahine, a neurologist and Parkinson’s researcher, will speak, and a panel of experts will answer questions on the topic.
Co-sponsored by the Jewish Home Family, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, the free program is open to physicians, medical and elder care professionals, and members of the community. Parkinson’s patients and their families are particularly encouraged to attend.
(Michael J. Fox, the actor, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when he was 29 years old. In 2000, he created the Michael J. Fox Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to clinical research on Parkinson’s disease.)
The December 12 program also marks the launch of a new community resource, the Center of Excellence in the Care of Parkinson’s. The center has been developed by the Jewish Home Family, a multifaceted eldercare organization serving Bergen, Hudson, and Rockland counties.
“There’s a huge need in the community to deal with this disease,” said Dr. Harvey Gross, a geriatrician who is the medical director of the Jewish Home Family. “We know there are some [Parkinson’s associated] genes connected with Jewish people, and we felt this program was appropriate to meet the needs of the community, as well as doctors.”
“Lana Chahine is a movement disorder specialist,” Dr. Gross said. Dr. Chahine, an assistant professor of neurology at the Pennsylvania Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, has published extensively on the motor functions, cognition, and genetics of Parkinson’s patients.
The information session is to “inform people about Parkinson’s disease,” Dr. Gary Alweiss, Englewood Hospital’s chief of neurology, said. “There’s a lot that can be done about it.” He noted that the new center will address an important need in the community, because there is higher incidence of some genes associated with Parkinson’s in the Ashkenazi Jewish community. The genes alone do not cause the disease, he said; instead, there is “the two-hit theory” — the combination of factors needed to trigger Parkinson’s, “genetic predisposition and environmental insult.”
According to the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s website, “Parkinson’s has not been considered to be a genetic disease,” since only 10 percent of cases are linked to a mutated gene. Other Parkinson’s cases are considered “idiopathic,” meaning that the cause is unknown. However, a specific mutation in the LRKK2 gene has been discovered that may account for up to 20 percent of Parkinson’s cases in the Ashkenazi Jewish population. This compelling link has led to considerable scientific and medical interest in following such cases in the Jewish community.
Inheriting the LRKK2 mutation raises the risk of Parkinson’s to about 30 percent, Dr. Alweiss said. While that figure is much higher than the risk the general public faces, “If you have the gene there is still a good chance that you won’t get the disease,” he said.
If someone has this gene, Dr. Alweiss said, “we do not know yet how to reduce the risk,” but with research there is hope for future development of “neural protective treatments.” At this point, “there is no good evidence of any medication being a good neural protective. But there are good symptomatic treatments, including drugs and surgery.”
“The Jewish Home Family is initiating efforts to develop a variety of programs and services for people with Parkinson’s disease,” Carol Silver Elliott, the Jewish Home Family’s president and CEO, said. “We are taking the lead on this. We have established a partnership with the Michael J. Fox Foundation and Englewood Hospital.”
Ms. Elliott said that a new support group for Parkinson’s patients and their families will begin on Thursday, December 15, at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh. The group, led by facilitator and Parkinson’s patient Jerry Ratner, who leads a similar group in Haworth, will focus on the latest research on Parkinson’s, helpful exercise, nutrition, and other relevant topics. Since there are many studies going on in the field, it is particularly important to keep apprised of new developments and how they will affect treatment and care and ultimately lead to cures.
Patients and family members will be able to volunteer at the December 12 program as participants in research studies sponsored by the Michael J. Fox Foundation. One such study is called Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative, or PPMI for short. The Fox Foundation’s website explains that “the mission of PPMI is to identify one or more biomarkers of Parkinson’s disease progression. The discovery of a biomarker is a critical step in the development of new and better treatments for PD.” Biomarkers are “disease indicators” that can help researchers detect patterns, reveal causes, and indicate new approaches to treatment. The $60 million PPMI study has signed up almost 1,000 participants at 33 clinical sites in 11 countries. Patients and family members provide samples and data over the course of up to five years.
“We encourage patients to sign up for Michael J. Fox Foundation genetic testing,” Ms. Elliott said. “Any research that aids us in knowing about Parkinson’s disease is a positive. We know that genetic markers are linked, and are more prevalent in the Jewish population, and such research will help us come closer to a cure.”
The community is offered two ways to learn more about Parkinson’s, and how to cope with it — a lecture and panel discussion, and an ongoing support group. Here’s more information on both of them:
Who: Parkinson’s researchers and experts Dr. Lana Chahine, Dr. Gary Alweiss, Dr. Harvey Gross, and the Fox Foundation’s Vanessa Arnedo
What: Offer a lecture and panel discussion exploring whether Parkinson’s is a Jewish genetic disease
When: On Monday, December 12, at 7:30 p.m., after a light kosher dessert reception at 7.
Where: At the main auditorium of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, 350 Engle St., Englewood
More: The evening is free; reservations are requested, not required. Parkinsons@JewishHomeFamily.org.
What: Parkinson’s support group, open to people of all faiths and backgrounds
When: On the third Thursday of every month, beginning Thursday, December 15, at 10:30 a.m.
Where: At the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, 10 Link Drive, Rockleigh.
For more information: Go to www.jewishhomefamily.org/parkinsons. Learn more about both the program and the Jewish Home.
Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman, the Jewish Standard’s science correspondent, is professor of biology at William Paterson University. Her recent book, “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World,” explores the historic, religious and cultural roots of hand washing, explains how hand washing keeps you healthy, and provides handy tips to reduce the risk of infectious disease. It is available on Amazon and at www.upne.com.