Michael J. Fox, Our Big-Time Hero

Todd Sherer, CEO of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, with Michael J. Fox and Anne Wojcicki

Michael J. Fox is a great actor, but his smiles and good humor during a visit to 23andMe headquarters in Mountain View this week were fully sincere.

“I really mean what I say when I express optimism, positivity and gratitude,” Michael said. “I don’t have those dark moments, but at the same time, having said that, I know people with Parkinson’s suffer depression. I know I live a kind of rarified life and have had good fortune. I don’t mean to compare my attitude to others’.”

His stop at 23andMe was part of a sort of mini-West Coast tour with stops in Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland. Joining him were other officials from the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which included CEO Todd Sherer and Debi Brooks, the foundation’s co-founder and Executive Vice Chairman.

Since it was formed just over a decade ago, the Michael J. Fox Foundation has raised more than $285 million for Parkinson’s research, and the actor has brought worldwide attention to the illness. The foundation has also been an intimate partner with 23andMe’s work on Parkinson’s. (The Foundation posted a blog on the visit here.) While the partnership has already borne fruit, initially it required the foundation to take a risk on us, said our CEO Anne Wojcicki.

“None of this could have happened if we didn’t partner with the Michael J. Fox Foundation,” Anne said during the visit. “I come from the research world and a lot of scientists don’t like to take risks, or try something new.”

But the gamble has paid off. In a short time 23andMe’s Parkinson’s Research Community has grown to more than 7,500, the world’s largest Parkinson’s community for genetic research. In that time, we’ve been able to replicate known genetic associations for Parkinson’s; we’ve discovered two new genetic associations with the disease; and late last year we found a genetic variant that is possibly protective against the disease.

This is all heady stuff, said Michael.

“What excites me is what the Fox Foundation is doing with 23andMe,” he said. “Especially after today…it’s crucial work that you’re doing.”

Still boyishly handsome at 50, Fox has become known not just for his acting and good humor, but for his philanthropy and the work he has done on Parkinson’s. First diagnosed in 1991, he has continued to act, while raising his four children and doing work with the foundation.

During his visit he took questions from employees at 23andMe.

Saying he has been an inspiration for so many people, he was asked who inspired him.

“My big time heroes are Gandhi, (Martin Luther King), and Nelson Mandela,” he said. “People who respond to negativity with positivity, optimism and non-violence. Those are my mega-heroes. But the Parkinson’s patient community inspires me. The scientific community inspires me and anyone seeking knowledge inspires me. So you all inspire me. And my kids.”

Fox said he’d spoken with an English researcher looking into optimism and was told his genetics fit the profile of someone with a predisposition toward optimism.

“I like to say it’s in my genes,” he said.

And of course he got a few movie star questions:
“Did you really ride on a hover board for Back to the Future II?

“Actually I had a pink piece of plastic stapled to my feet and I was strapped hanging from a cherry picker,” he said.

“If we collectively find a cure would you agree to star in another Back to the Future movie?

“Sure, but I’ll play Doc this time.”