The Phil Mikan Show

The Bright Side with Ben Fuchs


Full Show Transcript

Phil Mikan (00:01):

This is Phil Mikan Show, welcome. We have with us today a gentlemen that is, from what I can read about him, pretty interesting. And he’s going to be talking with us a little bit about Parkinson’s disease and many of you out there are at an age where Parkinson’s disease is a concern. At least it’s something we hear about. It’s kind of known that there are certain people that we know that have had it and what’s it all about. And he has seven signs and also he has created a test. How are you this morning, Dr. Lebovitz?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (00:41):

I’m doing fine. Thanks, Phil. I appreciate your letting me be on the call today.

Phil Mikan (00:45):

What exactly is Parkinson’s disease? If I can recall, the people that I’ve seen have it looks as if they’re stuttering or stammering that’s an overt kind of sign is their speech pattern, but what exactly is it?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (01:04):

Yeah. Well, thanks for asking. Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disease where certain parts of the brain over time are destroyed permanently. And with Parkinson’s the regions of the brain that tend to be destroyed are those that allow us to have control of our movements. And those movements could be everything from walking and moving our arms and legs. It also could be things like speech as you have referred to.

Phil Mikan (01:32):

So is this an age-centric, can somebody that’s really young get it or is it normally attributed to older people whose functionality is kind of wearing down?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (01:45):

Yeah. So Parkinson’s is primarily diagnosed for people in their ’60s. However, there are notable cases of people as young as in their late ’20s. I believe that the actor, Michael J. Fox who’s been a great spokesperson for the disease, got it at 29 or 30. It can hit anyone. It tends to hit men at slightly higher frequency than women, but really all of us are at risk. And what we’re learning about this disease is it takes a long time to develop once it starts maybe 20 years, sometimes even more. So if this is a disease that we recognize for people in their ’60s, data would say that it probably begins in late ’30s or early to mid ’40s.

Phil Mikan (02:31):

What are the early signs? What is something that… What did Michael J. Fox detect at 29, 25 and even the doctors would sit there and try to figure out was what was wrong with him and wouldn’t think of saying it’s Parkinson’s disease, he’s 29 year old kid?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (02:49):

It’s pretty unusual. Let me go through sort of seven signs that are early signs, because at late stage, as the disease progresses, it gets easier and easier to diagnose because it’s progressive. So one way that you would diagnose the disease is saying, “This looks like it might be Parkinson’s, let’s just wait a few years.” But that can be very difficult for patients. So let’s talk about some of the unique signs that might be early. It might be as early as someone in their ’40s, early ’50s, but still could be 10 years before it’s easily diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (03:26):

So the first and really one telltale sign is a very specific sleep disorder, and it’s not… everyone has trouble sleeping, but in the case of early Parkinson’s the sleep disorders that people wake up in the middle of the night, that they find that they’re thrashing. They’re moving. It’s almost as if in their dreams when they’re moving, they can no longer turn that off when they’re sleeping. And most frequently, this is reported by partners who suddenly get hit in the face or kicked pretty violently. So that specific type of sleep disorder is very much associated as an early sign of Parkinson’s.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (04:05):

Next is we’ll say stiffness, inability to move with ease. And it’s not so much the same way someone would injure themselves and you hurt yourself, it’s stiff and then you recover. Again, this is progressive. It’s a fairly… you just notice it one day. And the people who notice it the most are often athletes who really require fine motor control. They can no longer move the same way and with the same ease, but in people who aren’t athletes, things that we do every day and that we’ve done for years, walking, running activities that we’re so used to, suddenly we go to do them and they don’t work as well. Things are stiff. Our body doesn’t respond the same way.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (04:53):

The third that we could talk about our voice changes. And that’s one of the things that you referred to Phil early in this conversation. So the voice changes are two types. One, people find that suddenly their brain is moving much faster than their mouth and their vocal chords and their tongue are. And so they can no longer speak as quickly and again, with the same ease. But the other thing that is noticed is the control of vocal chords seems to be missing or reduced. And this is most noticeable by actors and singers. I believe that one of the early signs, the singer Linda Ronstadt has given interviews where she said, that the first sign was her voice just no longer responded the way it used to and she couldn’t control it.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (05:46):

The next sign that is worth mentioning are what we’ll call posture changes. And so it relates again to our inability to control all of our muscles and movements, but the result in some people is, that muscles on one side tend to tighten. They tend to lean either forward or backwards or to one side. And the reason that they’ll begin to notice this is when you’re leaning to one side you can have balance problems. So people start falling or lurching. And so that’s another sign.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (06:21):

Next is fatigue and fatigue, obviously we all get fatigued at different times. And this is probably related to the extra energy required just to do our everyday activities even at an early stage. If things are tight, we notice that we have to work harder. We have to be more conscious of things, so that leads to fatigue.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (06:44):

The six sign is a really important one. It used to be until a year ago, anyone who had this sign, it was a strong enough sign to at least go visit a doctor, to see if there was something wrong in the brain. And that is loss of smell and taste just suddenly. And in the case of Parkinson’s patients, it’s an early sign. It goes away and it tends to not come back. And before COVID, that was a really unique sign. Over the last year, obviously we have lots of people losing their sense of smell and taste. And so it’s likely that once we pass this rapid phase of COVID, since it does seem to be reversible in most patients, the onset in a year or so of loss of smell and taste is probably specific again for Parkinson’s.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (07:40):

The last is again, a very common sign, but it happens a little differently with Parkinson’s patients and that’s constipation. So for the same reason that we destroy areas of the brain that allow us to control movements, also controls automatic movements like in the gut. And so this onset is fairly sudden and it doesn’t respond to anything and it’s there pretty much for the duration. So those are seven really unique signs and as we’ve discussed that it’s much the subtlety than rather saying, “Well, anyone who has a sleep disorder.” It’s a very specific sleep disorder.

Phil Mikan (08:20):

Well, anybody over 70 knows what it’s like in terms of sleep patterns change as you get older, they just do. Some people sleep longer. Some people sleep intermediately. I can remember my mother when she reached 80 and she lived to 88, but when she reached 80 she would sleep five hours in her bed in the course of a night and she’d sleep in her chair throughout the day another five hours like catnaps. But the traditional sleep pattern go to bed at nine and get up at five or six was gone. And that happens to a lot of older people. It seems that the body just doesn’t rhythm the same way.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (08:59):

That’s right. And so when we talk about signs, we have to be specific as to what we’re looking for because again, many of the signs I’ve discussed generally are signs just of aging. And these are also diseases of aging, but again, because specific regions of the brain are permanently being wiped out, then the symptoms have an edge. They have something specific about them that if one is in tune or has a doctor that’s really in tune with this, then it makes it easier to suspect Parkinson’s disease.

Phil Mikan (09:35):

What causes it? Do we have any idea?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (09:37):

Yeah, we do. Over the last 20 years we have a pretty good idea. So in all cases, Parkinson’s seems to be caused by what we’ll call a normal brain protein gone rogue. And what I mean by that is that every patient with Parkinson’s seems to have a form of a normal protein and this protein is called alpha-synuclein and alpha-synuclein is normally a pretty good guy. It really helps with normal brain cell function, but alpha-synuclein has a very unique set of properties that it can go rogue. Meaning it literally flips into a different shape and the shape that it takes on is destructive to nerve cells and allows it to spread and let me describe.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (10:28):

It’s sort of like in the movie and the television show, the Transformer where something flips its shape and takes on a completely different function. So when alpha-synuclein flips, it turns into sort of a Darth Vader form. It’s structurally very similar, other than its folding. So it’s not easy to detect the misfolded form of alpha-synuclein by the standard tools that we’ve used for many years, but this sort of Darth Vader form, which we call a prion or prion like form of alpha-synuclein, one, as it accumulates, it damages nerve cells but most importantly, it converts the normal form of alpha-synuclein into the Darth Vader prion form. And this is how the disease spreads. It can start in one cell but it quickly moves from cell to cell and turns the normal form of synuclein into the Darth Vader prion form.

Phil Mikan (11:30):

But we don’t know what causes this shift, we don’t know what makes it change and go rogue?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (11:36):

Well, we don’t, we have clues. So in some people, about 10% of people it appears to be familial or genetic. And if we look into what controls this, it tells a fairly consistent story. So people who have a form have a mutation in alpha-synuclein that allows this shift to occur more frequently, have a very predictable rate of getting Parkinson’s, but that’s a small number. So the people who have the genetic form of the disease are only about 10%. But most of those genetic forms affect the misfolding or the ability for the body to recognize and clear the misfolded form. The rest are sporadic, meaning it can happen to anyone. And so when we try to look at the data on who gets this, there are some hints.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (12:28):

So several years ago it was noticed that certain people, athletes, particularly athletes who have multiple head injuries have a higher incidence of Parkinson’s, particularly boxers. And so the best example of that is Muhammad Ali, who got Parkinson’s at a relatively, probably in his ’50s, late ’40s. And so other boxers, other athletes who continually have a minor or major head injuries, would have to see… Okay.

Phil Mikan (12:57):

Well, what about people who are overindulge in drugs, a druggie, somebody who takes a lot of illegal drugs or just drugs to get high?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (13:08):

Yeah. I don’t know, in general that just using drugs for recreational purposes whether they’re legal or illegal increases, but there are certain drugs that people have taken that do increase it. So I believe like in the 1990s, people discovered that a drug that was being taken and probably isn’t used much anymore called PCP seemed to be associated with Parkinson’s symptoms. So there are instances there.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (13:42):

The other though is that for Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, something having to do with inflammation of the brain. And again, that could be from head injuries. It might be from virus infections affecting the brain and so-

Phil Mikan (13:59):

So it’s basically on the table and you’re still looking for, but it’s almost anything goes. Inflammation of the brain seems to be what affects it. Let me do a break and when we come back, we can go back and talk a little bit about how you diagnose. Is there a test? Is there something, and I know there is. I know you and your company have spent a long time and you’ve finally devised a test to be able to see what stage or if a person is in a Parkinson’s early stage, which is really why we’re talking, because I thought that was a very important discovery that you made and I want to hear more about it.

Phil Mikan (14:37):

This is the Phil Mikan Show. We’re talking with Dr. Russell Lebovitz. He is a man of mental agility joke, joke, joke. And when we come back we’ll talk a little bit more with the good doctor. We’ll be right back.

Phil Mikan (14:51):

This is Phil Mikan Show, we’re back. For those of you just joining us, we’re talking with Dr. Russell Lebovitz and we’re talking about Parkinson’s disease. Now, many of you out there are of an age where there’s some concern. Usually Parkinson’s, if you listened to the first portion of this program you heard Dr. Lebovitz say that for the most part it happens to people that are in their ’60s or moving into their senior citizens state, but there are people, and again, he mentioned somebody like Michael J. Fox had it, Katherine Hepburn had it, Linda Ronstadt has it. So it’s different people, different times.

Phil Mikan (15:33):

What causes it is something that we kind of skirted around and talked a little bit about what it is in terms of what is activated and brain-driven. It’s something that happens and seems to be as a result of some kind of condition that would cause inflammation of the brain for the brain to be kind of agitated and goofed, if you want to call it that in kind of slang words. Doctor, how long have you been studying the Parkinson’s phenomenon?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (16:02):

Well, this is probably about 20 years, specifically the role of misfolded proteins in Parkinson’s, but I want to be clear, this is a worldwide effort from a number of scientists. It’s just that our company, Amprion, was formed to be able to take this technology and bring it to people as a diagnostic tool and a tool to help develop new drugs.

Phil Mikan (16:26):

All right. So you have developed a system that you can diagnose the onset of Parkinson’s, is that correct?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (16:36):

Yes. We discussed before that whatever causes Parkinson’s ultimately and triggers it, what has to happen is that a normal brain protein called alpha-synuclein has to flip. It has to transform into a dangerous form. And we call that form a prion-like form. And the prion-like form of alpha-synuclein is identical to the normal form except it just folds into a different shape.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (17:03):

So most of the tools that we’ve had over the past 20 to 40 years for looking at proteins and protein structures would look at the normal and the misfolded prion form as very similar or maybe identical. But what Amprion has done is to develop specific tools to find a very small amount of misfolded synuclein and other misfolded prion like proteins in a sea of normal. And so that’s really the breakthrough here. And in doing that once we can determine that a person has the misfolded prion like form that’s capable of spreading, then they have the disease.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (17:43):

It’s like getting a diagnosis of COVID. You have the disease, whether you have symptoms yet or not, if you have symptoms and you are positive, then you know that you have this disease and not other diseases that overlap. And the test is very accurate. We certainly have done a lot of work. There’s a lot of research studies and now there’s enough that we’re allowed to bring this to the public.

Phil Mikan (18:08):

How long did it take you to come up with this test?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (18:11):

The test, interestingly, it’s been a while but it started because the original protein that misfolds into a prion like shape was a protein that caused mad cow disease in the early 2000s. And so it was really in working with mad cow disease and that prion-like form of a protein that we developed the test. And then we were able to adapt it as we and others began to understand that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases all have a link of a misfolded prion-like proteins. A protein gone rogue.

Phil Mikan (18:50):

There are a lot of strange things out there on the internet as far as conspiracy theories, but in terms of the history of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and dementia and all of these brain-centric kind of conditions that we’re very acutely aware of now. I mean, this is not something that we even talked about 40 years ago, but in the last two decades, three decades seniors are very concerned.

Phil Mikan (19:19):

In fact, I had a mother-in-law who I witnessed come down with dementia and she was then diagnosed with it and my own mother, I suspect toward the end of her life was moving into dementia. Is there something of record, were these conditions, was it just called old age or somebody has entered in senility? Have we clarified what the conditions are in this timezone that we’re in now? Or is there something that we as a population are experiencing which is causing this later incidence of things like dementia and Parkinson’s in the senior population?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (20:02):

Yeah. I think it’s a great question. And the answer is both. Both in the sense that we’re living longer over the last-

Phil Mikan (20:09):

That’s obvious. I’m an example of that. At 39, I had an acute gallbladder, gangrenous gallbladder attack and the operation and the surgery and the medical technology at that point saved my life. So I didn’t die at 40. I stayed alive. And then at 52, I had a heart attack. At 68 I had a heart attack and here I am now. I just celebrated a late ’70s birthday. I’m callous enough not to want to divulge that number, but it’s up there. I’m closer to 80 than I am to 70.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (20:45):

Well, congratulations on that, on the birthday. But yeah, I think that you’re spot on. We live longer and since dementia and Parkinson’s all of these neurodegenerative diseases are progressive. So one point is even if it was the same number of people getting it, let’s say starting it in their ’40s, the longer we live, the longer we get to see the symptoms. So as more of us are in our ’80s, we get to see the symptoms being full-blown. But the bigger problem is there does seem to be an increased incidence in these diseases, even above and beyond the increase in symptoms we see because people live longer.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (21:29):

Right now for chronic brain diseases, Parkinson’s, I won’t quite say it’s an epidemic, but it’s growing out of proportion even to the other diseases, to Alzheimer’s and other dementias. And there are many ideas about why this might be happening. One is that there may be something specific in the environment that we’re all exposed to or that we’re exposed to in larger numbers but we don’t know yet. But again, as we’ve been discussing here, in all cases, whatever it is, it triggers the misfolding of alpha-synuclein into a prion-like form and that really is the disease. That’s what takes the disease from cell to cell and ends up permanently destroying certain regions of our brain.

Phil Mikan (22:15):

And what you just said is where the conspiracy theorist go cuckoo because they sit there and say, “Okay there’s chlorine in the swimming pools and why don’t they use something else? Chlorine is poisonous. They put things in the water to make our teeth fluoride, to make our teeth sounder and that’s highly poisonous.” So there are a number of things that the conspiracy group, and they really are a group, point to you and say, and they have no evidence. None that I’ve ever seen any of them present. Some are very fanatical and very real in terms of their concern but I don’t see any scientific proof that what they’re saying causes it.

Phil Mikan (23:02):

I do question some of the things that are being done and said, “Yeah, this is okay.” But that’s a different story. Have you been able to come up… Is there an effort to try and find out what’s causing it, to remediate, or are we just looking to… How do you control it? What do you do? Once you get it and diagnosed with it, you just wait for it to hit you full power? Can you remediate it? Can you hold it off?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (23:27):

Well, again, great questions. For quite a while, more than 50 years, we’ve had drugs that when you have full blown symptoms can help with those symptoms for several years. They are not a cure. They don’t reverse the damage in the brain but they allow the brain to compensate a little better until the disease progresses to a point where we’re beyond that. And the original form of this drug was L-DOPA. There are now forms of dopa that, excuse me, that are given routinely. And they work for a few years, but they don’t cure the disease. They don’t reverse the damage. But if you have early information, there are several things that can be done.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (24:14):

As we would like to say that early detection empowers early prevention. So that if I know at age 50, that I’ve got Parkinson’s but I have no symptoms yet or I have one of the minimal symptoms that we discussed earlier, one of the early signs, but I’m fully capable of working, of moving in general, of traveling, then I have a number of options. So the first is that there is data that suggests that changes in lifestyle and fortunately, the same changes in lifestyle that we would use for heart and cardiovascular health also help with degenerative brain diseases. So better diet, better diet. A Mediterranean type of diet.

Phil Mikan (25:00):

What’s a better diet? Are you saying-

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (25:02):

Yeah. A Mediterranean.

Phil Mikan (25:02):

… get away from red meat, get away from fats, no hot dogs?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (25:07):

That’s right. And again, the one that works the best when we look around the world is the Mediterranean diet. It’s not a completely vegetarian or vegan diet, but it’s a lot of fresh vegetables. It’s fresh plant oils. It’s very well characterized and it’s the same. It helps with heart disease. It seems to help with neurodegenerative diseases. Same with exercise, people who exercise regularly, there’s data in peer reviewed journals indicating that lifestyle change in terms of aggressively changing diet and exercise can slow down the disease. So think about that.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (25:47):

If we paint a picture here that I know at age 50, that I have a disease that’s going to incapacitate me in probably 20 years but right now I can slow it down. And if I slow it down enough, instead of hitting me at age 62 or 63, maybe it hits me at age 80. That’s 17 years of productive life because I was willing to be proactive. The second thing that someone can do to be empowered by early detection is just, if I know that in 15 or 20 years, I probably won’t be comfortable traveling widely. So now’s the time to get my traveling and I’ll still exercise and change my diet.

Phil Mikan (26:36):

Okay. Yeah. Basically you can adjust your life plan for your bucket list like that. But does Parkinson’s as a disease… Let me give you an example. Have you ever seen Robert Kennedy Jr. speak and talk? He’s-

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (26:56):


Phil Mikan (26:56):

… a very big advocate right now. He didn’t start out that way, but he’s a pretty big advocate right now of anti-vaccine as it exists. He’s not against vaccinations, but he’s against the program the way it is. And he just won a very big case concerning vaccinations in the pharmaceutical industry. But when he talks he’s like, and again, if you saw Katherine Hepburn at the end of her career, it was very obvious that she had Parkinson’s and she had this almost hiccup delivery in talking which seems to be the pattern of Parkinson’s people. And Robert Kennedy Jr. has the same thing to the point where almost listening to what he’s saying is annoying, because it’s an interference in terms of listening to logic.

Phil Mikan (27:52):

But his intellect seems to be extremely sound as was Katherine Hepburn in her attempted portrayal. And she was trying to dance around the fact she had it in her later years until she stopped. But does Parkinson’s affect the intelligence or is it strictly a motor destroyer? Does it kill the muscles and not the brain?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (28:13):

Yeah, again, a great question where the answer is a little complicated. So in general, what we tend to say is that people with Parkinson’s tend to die with Parkinson’s. People with Alzheimer’s tend to die of Alzheimer’s. So that’s one important distinction in it. Yes, people are able to function. They may not be able to move well, they may need help moving. They may have trouble speaking but they tend to live a long time.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (28:46):

The changes in Parkinson’s over time become variable. Remember this is progressive disease. So it’s spreading throughout the brain but at least with Parkinson’s, it tends to focus initially on destroying a very specific region of the brain in the midbrain that could helps us control movements. But over time it can spread into regions of the brain that control learning and memory. But the data suggests that people with Parkinson’s over time do have some changes cognitively, but they’re different than the changes in general, that one sees with Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (29:26):

So as you say, one can remember things. One can have a conversation, can have executive function, know where they are, but if you did really detailed tests, you might find that people with advanced Parkinson’s don’t learn new things as well, but they’re very good at remembering old things. And again, this data is evolving over time. And what you said earlier is really spot on that people with Parkinson’s tend to be much more cognitively intact until very, very late stages of the disease.

Phil Mikan (30:01):

Well, it’s a fascinating topic. You’re a fount of information. I’m going to do a break and when we come back, I’m going to go and talk a little bit more about how your test works and how you got there, how you created this test. This is Phil Mikan Show. We’re talking with Dr. Russell Lebovitz. And we’re talking about Parkinson’s disease, which is something many in our audience are concerned about or might even be experiencing in onset form or are in the middle of. It can be in any direction. And this is for you. This show is for you. We’ll be right back.

Phil Mikan (30:44):

This is Phil Mikan Show. For those of you just joining us, this is halfway through guys. You’ve missed a good show. And let me tell you, we’ve been talking with Dr. Russell Lebovitz and we’ve been talking about Parkinson’s disease. How you diagnose it, what the kind of symptoms of it are, early onset symptoms. The problem with some of the symptoms that are considered early onset could be reflective of other things, just getting old for one. And in many instances the saying getting old… Doctor, something has happened to me in this period that we’ve gone through with COVID.

Phil Mikan (31:23):

And I had open-heart surgery several years ago. And one of the side effects I had of the open surgery, because once they did replace the heart valve. I also had a history of stents where they would put stents in. So they went to the oldest veins in my heart and they did a quadruple bypass at the same time. It’s like, when you go to the gas station and they change your oil, they also did the transmission fluid. And as a result, they harvested veins out of my legs. And so I had a problem with the legs in terms of retaining water or edema, things like that. And they were never really the same as they had been prior to the operation.

Phil Mikan (32:07):

I did not sue the hospital because they saved my life. I thought that was a major reason for doing the operation. So you learn to live with what that reaction was. But because of COVID and really the lack of day to day activity to the rhythm that I had been used to, the edema would come and go. And then toward the last four months of this state that we’re in, the edema blew up. I mean, I’m dealing with it all the time and it’s always something that you’re fighting. But in terms of Parkinson’s and getting old, many of the things that we think of at a certain age your body just kind of says, “Nah, I don’t think I want to do that anymore.” Are people confusing what is Parkinson’s? Is there an overlap? Are you finding out that Parkinson’s is more prominent now or prevalent than it was 20 years ago? And how did you come up with this test is the ultimate question?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (33:11):

Sure. Well, let me try to address both of your questions. First let’s start with you’re correct that symptoms of Parkinson’s can overlap a number of other diseases and old age. And so it is even in the hands of the most skilled physician in general, Parkinson’s tends to be misdiagnosed as much as 20% of the time. And so this is one of the challenges that we’ve tried to meet with our tests.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (33:46):

Since we now understand that Parkinson’s is a specific molecular disease and very similar in the way that certain cancers have a molecular fingerprint, that Parkinson’s has a molecular fingerprint, but it’s been very difficult to be able to measure that fingerprint because the cause of the spread and the progression of Parkinson’s, as we said, are misfolded proteins what we call prion-like proteins – in particular a prion-like form of alpha-synuclein, a normal brain protein – unless one can detect this prion-like misfolded form uniquely, then it’s very, very difficult to make a molecular diagnosis.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (34:33):

And the breakthrough for Amprion was being able to come up with a unique way that one can measure a very, very small amount of the misfolded protein in a sea of the normal protein. And that’s how we do this diagnosis. It requires the ability to be able to have a very, very sensitive detection. And that’s what our method allows.

Phil Mikan (35:00):

How long did it take you to get there?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (35:03):

As I’ve sort of talked about earlier, we started this in the early 2000s, looking at another misfolded prion protein responsible for mad cow disease. And that was really the breakthrough that mad cow disease could not be diagnosed and that we knew that it was due for a variety of reasons to a very specific misfolded protein called a prion and that-

Phil Mikan (35:32):

Okay. Can I stop you there just for a moment.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (35:33):


Phil Mikan (35:33):

Mad cow disease for, some might not have heard of it, mad cow disease, if I remember correctly, hit England like a thunderclap. I mean, it was like a tornado and the English agricultural industry ended up killing millions. I mean just millions of cattle to prevent the disease from spreading. And if I remember, this happened like in the early 2000s, late 1900s.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (36:01):


Phil Mikan (36:03):

And it had a terrible impact on the English economy and drove a lot of farmers out. They have to do… It was an equivalent to England what COVID has been for the world.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (36:15):

Yes. And so what turned out to be the cause was, again, a protein that misfolds into an unusual, dangerous shape, and that this protein could be transmitted from cow to cow but it’s not that it’s infectious – that two cows standing next to each other could get it – you literally had to feed the brain of one cow that had the disease to another cow that didn’t have the disease. And now we’ve got to why this was in England. In the United States and most of the world, we don’t allow or we at the time we didn’t allow feeding brains of cows that had been slaughtered to other cows. In England that was part of the practice.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (37:05):

So they unknowingly were spreading this from cows all through their cattle, but more importantly then that these prions as they destroyed the brain circulated in the body. And we started seeing first in England, then in France, much lower numbers in the United States that people could get this disease from eating meat from cows that had the disease. And so this was a giant threat both to people and to agriculture.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (37:40):

And so it was very important to be able to know, especially in people, if someone had the disease. So my partner and I, he’s a scientist at the University of Texas, Claudio Soto. Dr. Soto came up with a technology to be able to detect mad cow disease and it was a breakthrough. Fortunately that the disease both because of the ability to detect it and the changes in practice in not feeding brains from cow to cow, the disease has receded.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (38:21):

But Dr. Soto and others and I looking at this data came to recognize that the same phenomenon that we had been able to understand for mad cow disease was likely to be operating in Alzheimer’s, in Parkinson’s to a certain extent in ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease in all of the neurodegenerative diseases in people, they seem to share this prion-like mechanism of spread. So that’s really what led us to adapt the original test for mad cow protein, which is called prion protein to alpha-synuclein when it’s misfolded. And we’re in the process of doing this for other misfolded proteins involved in Alzheimer’s and ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Phil Mikan (39:12):

And do you think there’s any way to reverse this? Is there any way to coddle or mollify that protein to keep it normal or is that beyond our influence?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (39:26):

I think it’s possible to stop the misfolded proteins from spreading and replicating. The problem is the brain, unlike every other organ or almost every other organ in our body, the brain cells don’t replicate. The brain doesn’t regenerate. Almost every other organ, if we damage it, it repairs and heals. And so in the brain, when we say, once you have full blown Parkinson’s symptoms, the disease has been incubating in your brain for 20 or more years, the damage is permanent. Those cells and those connections are never coming back.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (40:06):

However, if we are able to have a drug that blocks the spread, that stops the disease dead in its tracks, if we have early detection without symptoms, even though part of the brain may be destroyed, we may never have symptoms. Alternatively, if we get a drug that’s not so perfect but slows down the progression of the disease, slows down the replication of the prion-like synuclein, then we may extend normal life by another 20 to 30 years. And there are right now 500 clinical trials available to people in the United States dealing with Parkinson’s.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (40:51):

And these cover everything from lifestyle changes to drugs, to devices and so one of the things that’s really important is someone who gets an early diagnosis and is still able to move with relative facility, has the option to enter into one of these clinical trials. And this could make a difference for them and it could make a difference for others as well.

Phil Mikan (41:17):

That sounds like a good news edition. That’s kind of… Well, aren’t we happy we did this show, huh? That’s a good footnote for the show that there are clinical tests. Anybody that’s dealt with anybody or lived with anybody who has had a diagnosis of cancer. I know a friend of mine who I really credit his extended stay because he was diagnosed with stage four B cancer, which is very serious. It’s a critical diagnosis. And because of the clinical tests that he had with drugs and everything else, I would say they extended his life like three years and in cancer that’s an astounding thing.

Phil Mikan (42:05):

So what that points out is there are things that are working to abate the cancer and still in clinical stages. That’s the way I take it. That there are procedures and chemicals and drugs that can help, but in any event for anybody that has Parkinson’s what you just said is a very important declaration that you have a chance to get into one of these studies and maybe minimize the depth and breadth of the disease on your person.

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (42:33):

Yeah. I’m confident based on what I know and what I see being done both at Amprion as well as many other places that within 10 years, we ought to have more than one drug that at the very least significantly slows down the progression of Parkinson’s and hopefully the other neurodegenerative diseases. And then the link to being able to give people full lives is the combination of a drug or a device that slows down the progression. Plus an early definitive diagnosis to say, “All right, you’re 50, you have this disease but you don’t have symptoms yet. This is the time to try to take that drug or device.”

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (43:19):

And the way it works at the FDA is you don’t start at that point. You have to start with something that works in people who already have the disease. And then you are able to try it earlier and earlier. And the beauty of this is Amprion can already detect disease in people who have either the earliest symptoms or in some cases, no symptoms yet at all.

Phil Mikan (43:43):

So you’re using it not only as a detection but it’s also in depth for early onset as well as advanced?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (43:53):

Correct. Because it’s the same disease and you still have the misfolded prion-like proteins circulating and replicating in the brain from the moment the disease starts. The disease without treatment is irreversible and it can be detected, but obviously the more brain cells you destroyed, the more symptoms that you will experience.

Phil Mikan (44:16):

Well, I think you put it all on the table. It’s been a very informative program. If somebody wanted to research you out, how would they reach you on a website?

Dr. Russell Lebovitz (44:26):

Yeah. So at Amprion, we have a website, we’re on social media. So our website is www.amprionme and we try to share the latest information. We try to curate information that we believe is validated. And so we’re trying to help people get the information they need to learn if they have the disease and what to do about it and the same if they have family members. So www.amprionme And then on social media, we’re on almost all social media at, @ the sign @amprionme. So we try very hard and we would love feedback about how our information is resonating with people and what other information we need to provide to help people to the maximum.

Phil Mikan (45:26):

I want to thank you for being with us today doctor. We’ve been talking with Dr. Russell Lebovitz and we’ve been talking about Parkinson’s disease.

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