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San Diego Parkinson’s Fighters Battle Disease As Researchers Close In On Breakthrough

People with Parkinson's disease participate in a Rock Steady Boxing class, ta...

Photo by Susan Murphy

Above: People with Parkinson's disease participate in a Rock Steady Boxing class, tailored to help them slow the progression of their neurological symptoms, at BoxFit in San Diego, June 25, 2017.

In a gym in North Park, there’s a boxing class that seems pretty typical, except for one thing — everyone in it is fighting Parkinson’s disease.

“We’re all fighting the same battle and all wishing the best for the other person,” said Sue Rode, who was diagnosed with the life-altering disorder 15 years ago. “This keeps you going and keeps you energetic, and muscle control and balance.”

Parkinson’s progressively deteriorates motor skills, balance and speech. Symptoms generally include tremors or shaking, weak or aching muscles, and difficulty walking and speaking, along with depression or apathy. While some symptoms can be eased for a while with medication, there is currently no cure.

That’s why Rode and her 20 fellow Parkinson's fighters are taking matters into their own hands.

Sporting matching T-shirts with nicknames displayed on the back, including "Iron Mike," "Can Do Sue," and "The Beast," they push themselves during a 90-minute, non-contact boxing workout several times each week. The class, part of a national program called Rock Steady Boxing, is tailored to help people with Parkinson’s combat their symptoms. Research shows high-intensity exercise like boxing slows the disease’s progression.

“I’ve seen people come in here hardly able to walk, but within a couple of weeks they’re boxing, they’re moving around. It’s amazing,” said John Pistacchi, who was diagnosed three years ago, but started noticing symptoms long before that.

“I really feel it has slowed down the progression to the point that after three years, I don’t think I’ve seen that much change in my ability,” Pistacchi said.

Ron Lalk, a Navy veteran and retired airline pilot, who was diagnosed in 2007, said the class gives him something to look forward to every day.

“It gives me more energy and just overall well being,” Lalk said. “And it’s nice to have a group of people who know what you’re going through.”

BoxFit gym owner Mike Reeder is the instructor of the high-energy class, which he offers twice each day.

“When you start noticing Parkinson’s, the movements get really small, the steps are small, you might be hunched over,” Reeder said. “But with boxing, you kind of don’t have a choice. You put on these big boxing gloves, you feel big and strong.”

Each class starts with leg lunges, balancing warmups and vocal exercises.

“We play games every class,” Reeder said. “We do a get-to-know-you question for voice activation. There are no soft voices in the gym."

“When they come in the gym, they’re a Parkinson’s fighter,” Reeder said. “They’re not just a person with Parkinson’s.”

La Jolla Researchers Preparing Clinical Trial In Possible Parkinson's Breakthrough

While the Parkinson’s fighters are working up a sweat, researchers in La Jolla are working on a cure.

“It’s reasonable hope right now,” said Jeanne Loring, PhD, a professor with Scripps Research Institute.

Loring is preparing to launch a clinical trial on 10 Parkinson’s patients next year that involves transplanting healthy brain cells to replace the cells killed off by the disease.

Parkinson's destroys brain cells that make a substance called dopamine. Without dopamine, nerve cells can’t communicate with muscles.

Photo by Susan Murphy

Jeanne Loring (left), a professor at the Scripps Research Institute, looks at stem cells on a computer screen in the Loring Lab in La Jolla, June 27, 2018.

“So what we propose to do is replace those neurons in the brain with the people’s own dopamine neurons, and we make those neurons by taking a little bit of their skin…”

The skin cells are grown in a lab, Loring explained and reprogrammed in approximately a month’s time into a master cell called a pluripotent stem cell.

“These cells can make every cell type in your body including nerve cells,” Loring explained.

Loring said the process has taken five years to perfect. The transplant has been successfully tested in rats. Next comes the yearlong FDA approval process, set to begin this fall.

“I can’t say the word 'cure,' I’m not going to say the word 'cure' until I actually see the results from our patients and their studies,” Loring said.

But Loring said it’s promising. Her research shows a reversal of Parkinson’s symptoms within months.

“It will be like they had functioning dopamine neurons in their brain like they did before,” Loring said. “So we expect people to have a full recovery starting in about a year and then onward get better and better.”

If all goes well during the first trial in 2019, she hopes to expand the treatment to a large number of patients soon after.

“At multiple sites, and so we should be able to move fairly quickly,” she said. “When I say quickly, I mean not 10 years, not five years, probably less than that.”

Photo by Susan Murphy

Sue Rode, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 15 years ago, wears pink boxing gloves to hit a punching bag during a Rock Steady Boxing class at BoxFit gym, San Diego, Calif., June 25, 2018.

She said the same therapy could be effective in treating Multiple Sclerosis, ALS and Alzheimer’s.

“Stem cell replacement therapy is a reality that’s going to become a much more, a much larger part of medicine over the next few years,” she said.

In the meantime, BoxFit gym is providing a safe haven for people battling Parkinson’s to keep their disease in check and their spirits high.

“Parkinson’s is a disease that’s difficult for a lot of people. If they would fight it early, if they would get exercising and join a group like this — it’s so helpful,” Rode said.

Together, they are determined to keep fighting until the disease is knocked out.

There is hopeful news for the nearly 20,000 people battling Parkinson’s disease in San Diego County. A unique boxing program is helping some people slow the progression of their neurological disease. And researchers in La Jolla are making sure they’re not alone in their fight.

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