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USF research focuses on Parkinson's disease

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TAMPA, FL (WFLA) -

New trials at the University of South Florida hope to get to the root of Parkinson's Disease, helping patients live longer, healthier lives.

"We do hope they're groundbreaking," said Dr. Theresa Zesiewicz, Professor of Neurology at USF. "All the medications for Parkinson's right now are symptomatic therapies so they help symptoms, but this is a drug that may work on the root, the mitochondria of the cell, which is the powerhouse of the cell."

Zesiewicz said Parkinson's is one of the only neurodegenerative diseases that can be readily treated with medication.

Case in point is her patient Tammy Robles.  At age 41, her doctors initially couldn't figure out what was happening to her.  Her muscles were very weak. Things got so difficult that she couldn't take care of herself and couldn't walk.

"I could barely feed myself," Tammy remembers.

A pulmonary doctor admitted her into the hospital, where she sat immobile for a week.  Test after test, and doctors still weren't sure what was wrong.

"When doctors don't know - they tend to lean you toward psychiatry," Tammy said.

Eventually, she met Dr. Zesiewicz at USF, and that's when Tammy's life changed.

"To get a diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease at 41 years old is a pretty scary thing," Tammy said. "But it was much better than not knowing what was wrong."

Tammy is on SINEMET, the same drug Michael J. Fox used to curb the signs of his Parkinson's, and she's now living life again with her four children and husband. Being able to get out of the wheelchair and care for herself was a life-changing event.

"To be able to do those things again - I'll never take that for granted again," she said.

Some research shows that as many as 40 percent of Parkinson's patients are undiagnosed.  Diagnosing someone under 40 sometimes perplexes medical professionals.

"What's tough is when you have a young person and people don't know what that person has," Dr. Zesiewicz said. "People think that maybe they're making it up - they psychogenic in some way and it's very difficult for them."

Dr. Zesiewicz learned a lot about the disease because of personal experience. Her mother lived with the disease for 20 years before she died at age 86.

"At the end, it wasn't pretty," she remembers. "There's so much to this disease in terms of memory problems."

Dr. Zesiewicz, whose area of research extends beyond Parkinson's to other disorders like Essential tremor, has just finished her third book this year. She says about 10 to 15 percent of patients are under 40 and long-term care can become tricky because Parkinson's drugs can have side effects and it gets harder and harder for doctors to "hit the target zone."

"What we don't have is a cure," Dr. Zesiewicz said. "I can't give you a drug today and slow down your disease over the long-term."

To read more about Parkinson's Disease and movement disorders, click here.

 

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