As many as 60,000 Americans are diagnosed every year with Parkinson's Disease. Patients may have tremors, stiffness, and loss of motor control as the disease progresses. But a new study is showing experimental gene therapy may hold real promise for some patients.
Walter Liskiewicz, 60, spends most of his time on his keyboard. The new-age jazz musician and singer has a string of hit songs under his stage name "Waldino."
"He was very prolific. People couldn't understand how he could write so many songs. It's because he was stuck in a chair," says Connie Smith, Walter's wife.
For more than 18 years, Walter has struggled with Parkinson's. At age 44, he was forced to retire from his first career as an oral surgeon. Medication helped control the disease early on, but eventually, he started losing his ability to speak and to sing.
Dr. Peter Lewitt at Henry Ford Health System in Michigan says is gene transfer therapy is starting to show promise for patients like Walter.
"The foot is now in the door, opening perhaps a better way to treat people than just medications," says Dr. Lewitt.
During the transfer procedure, doctors attach a specialized gene onto a harmless virus and infuse it directly into the brain. Researchers believe that gene -- known as GAD -- regulates a chemical in the brain that can improve Parkinson's symptoms.
After surgery, Walter and Connie began to notice small, but meaningful changes.
"Just to see him. The eyes sparkling, the smile, the facial expressions. It was really exciting," says Connie.
Researchers say despite concerns that the gene therapy could have unforeseen risks, those enrolled in the study had no significant side effects. Larger trials would need to be conducted before the FDA would approve the treatment as safe and effective.