Michael J. Fox’s impact on Parkinson’s disease is undeniable, from the hundreds of millions of dollars of funding directed towards research, to his work reducing the stigma of the disease. And the actor is confident that researchers will hit a new milestone in the next five years.
“We’ll be able to predict it, and we’ll be able to stop the progress of the disease,” Fox, 57, tells PEOPLE.
That would be a massive breakthrough for Parkinson’s disease — a neurological disorder that causes tremors, slowed movement, balance problems and more — and a far cry from where research was in 2000, when Fox created the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
At that point, “the overall pace of progress was quite stalled,” says Deborah W. Brooks, the foundation’s cofounder and executive vice chairman.
“Michael going public with his disease and then going further and acknowledging that he had a role to be playing to galvanize the patient community, plus directing fundraising towards Parkinson’s research, really gave it a jolt, and was a catalyst for the whole Parkinson’s patient and research community,” she says.
“People with Parkinson’s have told me when they heard I was diagnosed, they were happy,” Fox says, because of the attention they knew he would bring. “I said, ‘I get it.’ ”
Dr. Steven Frucht, the director of Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders at NYU Langone Health, agrees.
“I don’t think you can understate the impact it had on the field, and also in very practical ways, in the dollars of research funding that was directed towards this disease,” he says. “It had an enormous impact.”
In the 18 years since the foundation’s inception, the non-profit has raised nearly $1 billion for Parkinson’s research, which led to major medical and surgical advances in treating and slowing the disease.
“Today, we have the best drug development pipeline for Parkinson’s, ever,” says Brooks. “But in addition to that, we have a robust and growing pipeline of therapeutic programs that we believe can change the underlying disease biology. Not only will we be able to manage symptoms, but we can slow the disease, reverse the disease and ultimately prevent the disease.”
“That’s a completely new direction that’s been possible in the last couple of decades, not solely by our work, but we’re a big part in being about to work quickly and aggressively around emerging priorities,” she adds. “The science has exploded, particularly over the last five years.”
- For more on Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday
Along with new treatments, Parkinson’s researchers have recently gained a better sense of the fundamentals of the disease.
“We now are beginning to understand that Parkinson’s disease really is a collection of related disorders, some of them genetic, some not,” Frucht says. “It’s probably six, eight or ten different diseases that mimic each other but are different.” That means that each Parkinson’s patient is unique, with some exhibiting certain symptoms that others do not. “Treatments are now more likely to be targeted to the cause of the illness.”
Plus, with Fox continuing to act and work in the spotlight, along with other celebrities like Alan Alda, a Parkinson’s diagnosis no longer feels like the end of the world.
“This is a demonstration that for many patients, Parkinson’s is something that they live with and adapt to. It doesn’t define what they do and it doesn’t define how they move through the world,” Frucht says. “They’re saying: I had it yesterday and it doesn’t affect what I do today or tomorrow.”