A leg up for those with Parkinson’s

Sherrie Gould, center, leads Summit for Stem Cell.
Sherrie Gould, center, leads Summit for Stem Cell. San Diego Union-Tribune

Climbing to the remote Peruvian citadel of Machu Picchu would be a challenge for most hiking groups, but when nearly a third of them have Parkinson’s disease, it’s an even more impressive feat.

In mid-October, 30 people from all over the country – nine with Parkinson’s – will spend five days trekking to the ruins of the 15th-century Incan city in the Andes Mountains.

The San Diego-based group is climbing to raise money and awareness for promising stem cell research that might one day dramatically reduce the symptoms of the progressive neurological disease.

Among the climbers are Poway resident Elena Andrews, 58, and Scripps Ranch residents Ron Phillips, 57, and Doug Burcomb, 63. All three have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the past five years. They say training for the climb with weekly group hikes has reduced their symptoms and they’re excited to help with the cutting-edge stem cell research under way at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla.

“It’s inspiring,” said Burcomb, who will be climbing in October with his wife of 30 years, Margie. “As I’m preparing for this it seems like I’m getting younger, not older.”

The Machu Picchu ascent is the third mountain climb since 2011 organized by Sherrie Gould, volunteer executive director of the nonprofit Summit for Stem Cell. A nurse practitioner at Scripps Clinic’s Movement Disorder Center, Gould works closely with Parkinson’s patients. Back in 2010, she was asked by Scripps neurologist Dr. Melissa Houser to come up with a creative way to get patients more involved in stem cell research.

Gould talked to Scripps Research Institute director Dr. Jeanne Loring, who said that Parkinson’s is one of the diseases most likely to respond to stem cell treatment. If Gould could come up with six Parkinson’s patients and $300,000 for research, Loring said the Institute could jump-start its work on the disease.

“I went for a run at Torrey Pines and tried to figure out how to do this. The weirdest thing is it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t raise the money. It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Gould said.

But first she needed a signature event. She chose her own bucket-list dream of climbing Tanzania’s 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro. On Sept. 17, 2011, she and 15 other people (three with Parkinson’s) topped Africa’s tallest peak, and in the process they raised $350,000 in donations.

The money from the climb was used to hire Dr. Andres Bratt-Leal as the new program director for Parkinson’s research at Scripps Research’s Center for Regenerative Medicine. It was also used to find and biopsy the needed patients for the study.

In 2006, Japanese doctor Shinya Yamanaka made a scientific breakthrough by converting ordinary human skin cells into “pluripotent” stem cells (cells that can be converted into any type of human cell). The manufactured skin cells were not ethically compromised (like fetal stem cells) and were DNA-matched to the patient. Dr. Bratt-Leal hopes to use this technology to turn patients’ skin cells into dopamine neurons that can be transplanted in their own brains to replace those neurons lost to Parkinson’s.

The Kilimanjaro quest funded only the first phase of the project, so in 2012 Gould went looking for another mountain to climb. For inspiration, she asked Carolynne Arens of Vista. Carolynne and her husband, Brad, were among the first to sign up for Kilimanjaro and she couldn’t wait for another adventure.

Brad Arens, 62, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 14 years ago. An avid outdoorsman, hiker and traveler, he was working as a chiropractor when he began suffering symptoms of the disease. Carolynne said the diagnosis came “as quite a shock.”

Before the Kilimanjaro climb, Brad Arens could only walk backward without stiffness and mobility problems. But after a few months of hiking training, he was the strongest hiker on the Kilimanjaro team.

At Carolynne’s suggestion, Gould organized the next Summit for Stem Cell climb to the Khumbu Valley base camp of Mount Everest in Nepal, at 17,300 feet. The arduous, two-week trek was longer, harder and more expensive to organize, but nine people (three with Parkinson’s) finished the climb in 2013.

As word of the foundation grew, donations began to pour in from around the country. To date, Summit for Stem Cell has raised nearly $5 million, including a $2 million state grant. Gould said that with FDA approval, Dr. Bratt-Leal hopes to transplant 10 patients with the pluripotent stem cells in 2018.

Patient Ron Phillips said the attraction of Machu Picchu was a big draw for him to sign up to climb this fall (each hiker must raise a minimum of $2,000), but he is also eager to fund the research. Phillips, who was an avid biker and climber before he became ill, said he struggled for months with troubling symptoms, like a right hand tremor, before he was finally diagnosed four years ago.

“It was good to finally know what it was, but on the other hand, it’s something nobody wants to have,” he said.

To prepare for this fall’s climb, Phillips gets up at 5 a.m. three days a week for hikes with his training buddies Elena Andrews and Carolynne Arens, who’s climbing this year not with her husband or daughter, but with her 28-year-old son, Chris. All three say they’ve formed a lifelong friendship from the experience.

“The training, the hiking ... they’ve all been really helpful keeping me active so Parkinson’s doesn’t get the best of me,” Andrews said.