If you were facing a daunting diagnosis you would want the news to come from someone like Dr. J. William Langston.Engaged and intelligent, he has the kind of optimism you don’t expect from a physician who has spent decades working to unravel the complexities of Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s Institute, Dr. Langston was recently singled out for his work and awarded the 2012 Robert A. Pritzker Prize for Leadership in Parkinson’s Research.After picking up the award in New York, Langston, who also serves on 23andMe’s Parkinson’s Research Community Scientific Advisory Board, stopped by our office to talk about the state of the science of Parkinson’s and share a little about his career in the process.In a way, Langston is already the doctor for anyone with Parkinson’s — his contributions to research, treatment and diagnosis of the disease are that important. And those contributions started almost 30 years ago with the famous case of the “Frozen Addicts.” This fascinating medical mystery, solved by Dr. Langston, involved a handful young people who in a matter of days became debilitated with advanced Parkinson’s symptoms that would normally have taken a patient decades to develop. Langston found that they were all linked to the same batch of synthetic heroin, contaminated with MPTP, a neurotoxin that “lasers like a Nike missile on the same nerve cells in the brain that die in Parkinson’s, (in the) substantia nigra,” Dr. Langston said.“That really revolutionized research because it gave us a model and a way to study neurological cell death in Parkinson’s,” he said.
When he first started his association with 23andMe, he would get questions from those who wondered why you would want to know if you had a genetic risk for Parkinson’s.“I hear that less and less I think because 23andMe is helping to change that,” he said. “People see value in it. Knowledge is power. The more you know and understand the more you can do.”Beyond looking at genetics there are other early indicators. His team is looking at things like autonomic innervation of the heart and REM sleep patterns, or loss of the sense of smell as early indicators for the disease.“It’s a major focus of the research to find the markers before you have any disability,” he said. “We’re hoping that 23andMe will be part of this effort to find the tools where we can pick this up.”