Michael J. Fox: How to honor Muhammad Ali

Updated 3:23 PM EDT, Mon June 6, 2016

Story highlights

Michael J. Fox and the CEO of Fox's foundation,Todd Sherer, remember Muhammad Ali

They say we should honor Ali's fortitude in fighting Parkinson's with a renewed commitment to research

Editor’s Note: Michael J. Fox and Todd Sherer, Ph.D., are the founder and the CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors.

(CNN) —  

On Saturday morning, the world awoke to a reminder that even the most exalted of heroes does not win every fight.

There are stars, and then there are comets. Muhammad Ali was radiant; such a bright and fast light only rarely streaks across the sky. So it is odd to recollect that his incomparable athletic career ultimately played out in fewer years than the three decades he spent fighting Parkinson’s disease.

Michael J. Fox
Michael J. Fox
PHOTO: Allison Boiles
Todd Sherer
Todd Sherer
PHOTO: Allison Boiles

Countless people living with Parkinson’s, including one of the authors of this piece, looked up to Ali as a role model of equanimity and fearlessness in the face of Parkinson’s degeneration.

This incurable brain disease, second only to Alzheimer’s in prevalence, slowly causes the dopamine neurons in the brain to sicken and die, affecting movement, diminishing voice and masking expression, among a host of other symptoms. Parkinson’s affects each individual differently, but one thing every patient shares is the certainty that the disease will, from the moment of diagnosis, inexorably progress.

As the founder and the CEO of a foundation dedicated to Parkinson’s research and therapeutic development, we have cast ourselves in the role of opponent to this status quo. We are determined to change how Parkinson’s is diagnosed and treated, and to create a world in which Parkinson’s finally can be cured — in memory of Ali (who was active with our foundation from its earliest days) and on behalf of the millions worldwide living with the disease today.

As heartbreaking as this weekend’s loss has been, we are grateful that it brings us an opportunity to share good news: Parkinson’s research, and brain disease research as a whole, are making unprecedented advances.

In the 30 years since Ali was diagnosed, new insights from cell biology and genetics, coupled with emerging research technologies, have cracked open new therapeutic approaches and strategies for living with the disease. Doing nothing used to be the standard response to a Parkinson’s diagnosis. That has changed. Today, proactive avenues beckon both investigators and people with disease.

So, where do we stand? We’ve identified a handful of truly promising drug targets, shed greater light on areas of overlap between the pathways and cellular function involved in different brain diseases, and made real inroads toward understanding the causes of disease onset and progression. But much work remains to be done. And now — as our population continues to age, as ever more families experience the devastating impact of brain disease — is the time to do it.

Patients’ greatest unmet need has not changed since our foundation launched in 2000: a treatment that could slow or stop the progression of the disease, rather than merely mask symptoms. (While we rejoice that three new Parkinson’s drugs have made it to market over the past 18 months, all are symptomatic, not curative.)

Our foundation has funded hundreds of millions in research to address this challenge, but we cannot do it on our own. Both government-funded academic researchers and the biopharmaceutical industry must commit to greater investment in brain research, including potentially transformative high-risk/high-reward investigations.

Patients and families, too, must continue to mobilize and take their place on the front lines of discovery. Virtual and online studies, wearable computing devices, big data and traditional clinical trial participation all are helping transform the traditional “one-way monologue” of drug development, researcher to patient, into a dialogue informed by the experiences of those living with disease. Thousands have joined our foundation’s community of citizen scientists; tens of thousands more are needed. If you want to become involved, our website can get you started.

“Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare,” Ali famously said. Curing Parkinson’s disease once seemed impossible. But momentum is at last on our side. We believe without fail that cures are within reach if we dare to do more, not less. Muhammad Ali showed us what it means to have the heart of a champion. Now is our chance to honor him by finishing the fight he could not.

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Michael J. Fox and Todd Sherer, Ph.D., are the founder and the CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors.