Through its grant program, the ProjectSpark Foundation seeks to support innovative solutions, creative approaches, collaborative ventures and new ideas to improve the lives of those with Parkinson’s disease. It also seeks to leverage existing projects or to fund promising projects that are not likely to be funded by existing for-profit or nonprofit entities. The Foundation focuses on efforts that show high promise of significant impact on the PD population. We call these “Spark Grants” because we view them as “Sparks” that set into motion actions / initiatives that can markedly improve the lives of those living with PD, their families and caregivers.

The following is a sampling of the Spark Grants awarded in 2011:

Research into the ability of phenylbutyrate to stop the progression of Parkinson’s disease in humans

Dr. Curt Freed, Head, Division of Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology, University of Colorado School of Medicine

In laboratory animals, Dr. Freed’s research team found that the FDA-approved drug phenylbutyrate could turn on the protective DJ-1 gene and stop Parkinson’s from getting worse. Subsequently, Dr. Freed conducted a successful Phase 1 Clinical Trial on 12 Parkinson’s patients and found that the drug has no side effects. Additional experiments are necessary to demonstrate how phenylbutyrate is working on a cellular level to protect dopamine neurons. These additional results should make a persuasive case for the funding of a multimillion dollar grant from the Michael J Fox Foundation to see if phenylbutyrate can stop the progression of Parkinson’s disease in people. The Spark Grant is funding tissue culture experiments that are expected to show that phenylbutyrate can accelerate removal of abnormal proteins from dopamine neurons, thereby demonstrating the effectiveness of phenylbutyrate. Since phenylbutyrate has already been approved by the FDA for a rare form of liver disease in children, once a Phase II Trial is completed, the path to drug availability to the patient could be rapid.

Pilot project of a relational agent exercise advisor used by community-dwelling people with Parkinson’s disease

Dr. Terry Ellis, College of Health and Rehabilitation Science and the Center for Neurorehabilitation, Boston University

This project seeks to demonstrate that through the use of a relational agent people with Parkinson’s disease can be motivated to adhere to their exercise programs in the long-term. This would significantly improve function and quality of life. It addresses one of the most obstinate barriers to exercise effectiveness. Relational agents (RA) are animated characters that build and maintain long-term, social-emotional relationships with people. In this project, the agents emulate face-to-face interaction with people, including the use of synthetic speech and synchronized nonverbal behavior such as hand gestures, facial expressions, and body posture. People “talk” to the character using touch screen input. Individuals communicate daily with their relational agent and log in their daily exercise data, which in turn is periodically reviewed by exercise specialists. This pilot will allow the use of the relational agent used in the general population of older adults with a new population, people with PD. A strong research team has been assembled for this pilot study, which will provide the groundwork for an application for a “Technologies for Healthy Independent Living” five-year grant from the National Institute on Aging.

Multifactorial exercise program to reduce falls in people with Parkinson’s disease

Dr. Terry Ellis, College of Health and Rehabilitation Science and the Center for Neurorehabilitation, Boston University

Approximately 70% of older adults with Parkinson’s disease fall each year – this astonishing number is more than double the number of elders over the age of 65 living in the community who fall annually (30%). Falls are a major cause of disability and reduced quality of life in people with PD. Falls result in obvious devastating injuries such as hip fractures which are significantly more common in PD than in those with other medical conditions. Falling also leads to a fear of falling and reduced mobility contributing to weakness, inactivity and a loss of independence. In addition, falls are associated with increased risk of hospital and nursing home admissions and ultimately with decreased survival rates. Falls also have a tremendous economic impact with the health cost of PD fallers about twice as much as PD non-fallers.

Identifying interventions that successfully improve balance and reduce fall rate is critical in order to reduce disability, improve function and enhance quality of life in people with PD. This project seeks to demonstrate that multifactorial intervention strategies specifically tailored to address the types of postural control and balance deficits observed in people with PD will improve balance and reduce falls among adults with PD. Many previous efforts using a single-factor approach and have not shown significant effect. Participants will use a functional activity monitor to record movements and falls.

There is a paucity of research in this area despite the magnitude and modifiable nature of the problem. The results of this pilot study and the possible larger study to follow will be highly generalizable to people with PD and easily disseminated on a broad scale. This pilot study should provide the basis for an application to NIH for a larger grant.

The incidence of PD-related falls can be expected to have an even greater impact on the health care system in the upcoming decades as the number of individuals with Parkinson’s disease over age 50 in the world’s 10 most populous countries is expected to double from approximately 4.5 million in 2005 to 9.0 million in 2030. Reducing fall rate is essential for both individuals living with PD and for society as a whole. The lack of effectiveness in pharmacological interventions in reducing falls highlights the need for other viable, efficacious interventions.

Using a motorized Theracycle to improve mobility in people with Parkinson’s

Colorado Neurological Center NeuroHealth Center

The Theracycle has proven particularly helpful to Parkinson’s patients who face the challenges of decreased mobility, flexibility and loss of balance. The Theracycle motorized technology provides high cadence cycling motion that improves mobility and reduces tremors, increasing a patient’s confidence in their ability to exercise on their own. Exercise with the Theracycle, which “forces” patients to exercise at a rate faster than they could achieve on their own, helps Parkinson’s patients to form new neurological pathways, thereby improving gait and balance. Difficulty with gait and balance are the biggest predictors of disability in people with Parkinson’s. Studies have shown a 35 percent improvement in motor function with forced exercise.