By Karen Billing
A group of dedicated local climbers will head to the Himalayas this fall in search of an end to Parkinson’s disease.
As part of Summit 4 Stem Cell, 10 local residents will head to Nepal in early October to trek to the base camp of Mount Everest, an altitude of 17,598 feet, to raise awareness and funds for a unique Parkinson’s disease study.
The study is being done locally in San Diego, using non-embryonic stem cells and turning them into dopamine-producing neurons. The loss of dopamine production in the brain is the driving cause behind Parkinson’s disease.
“This research is going to be so significant,” said Sherrie Gould, a local nurse practitioner at Scripps Clinic Movement Disorders Center, who is leading the trek. “We don’t know what starts Parkinson’s, but we do know that it is caused by a loss of a neurotransmitter called dopamine… It’s not a complete cure but if we can fill up the tank, refill the bucket with fresh new dopamine-producing cells we can essentially rid the patients of their symptoms.”
Gould has already tackled another of the world’s largest peaks for Parkinson’s — leading 16 hikers to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro for Summit 4 Stem Cell in September of 2010.
The research is being led locally by Dr. Jeanne Loring, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at the Scripps Research Institute, and Dr. Melissa Houser, neurologist and director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at Scripps Clinic.
As soon as Gould learned about their research and that the only thing stopping them from moving forward was money, she was determined to do something to help. She thought the big climbs would not only be a way to gain a lot of attention, but the idea of a climb also reflects what the Movement Disorders Center stresses with Parkinson’s patients about exercise and self-empowerment.
“All of the trekkers want to inspire those who face seemingly insurmountable odds to rise above them and escape the limitations we all set for ourselves,” Gould said. “It’s time to not only meet this mountain but to move it.”
Although the Everest base camp is a lower elevation than Kilimanjaro’s 19,341 feet, Gould said it is a longer and “more arduous” trek. Base camp is located at 17,600 feet and the hikers will climb a little higher to 18,500 feet. While Kilimanjaro took them seven days and seven nights to summit, the Everest trek will take two-and-a-half weeks, hiking every day for six hours a day.
Gould has never wanted to summit the full 29,029 feet to the peak of Everest because of the high life-cost factor (there is one death for every 10 successful ascents), but she has always had a little fascination with the base camp.
Even with the fascination, Gould never thought that she would be leading a climbing crew to Everest.
“I just really believe that there isn’t anything you can’t do,” Gould said. “If you commit yourself you can do it, you can make it happen, and the Summit 4 Stem Cell is a testament to that.”
Through grassroots efforts since 2010, the group has raised almost $1 million through just dollars and cents donations, everything from $10 to $100,000 contributions.
The group’s total fundraising goal is $3.9 million.
Three of the Everest climbers have Parkinson’s disease, including Alan Truitt, Bill Maddox and Evelyn Heilbrunn.
Heilbrunn said she’s climbing “because she can” — she not only has Parkinson’s, but also has had breast cancer twice. Her friend Rick Whipple will climb alongside her. Truitt will have his son, Adam, and friend Bob Baker to climb with him.
Team members Heidi and Carolynne Arens are climbing for Brad Arens (Heidi’s husband and Carolynne’s father). He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 12 years ago and was a part of the Kilimanjaro climb, completing the journey despite the disease impacting his balance, coordination and gait.
To prepare for their trek, each member of the group hikes during the week on their own and every Saturday they do a long hike together. Recently they completed a 9.5-mile hike on Iron Mountain and in September they will do a four-day altitude hike in the Sierras to prepare for the hard, back-to-back days on Everest.
Gould said she plans to work her hikers toward setting an unbeatable, determined mindset — that even though they may feel tired, there’s no stopping them.
“When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s I thought my adventures were over, all I could think about was the future of my disease and to accept how little control I had over my life,” said hiker Alan Truitt. “Trekking to Everest Base Camp requires me to continue my physical fitness regimen, which is one of the things I do have control over, and recommits my spirit to adventure, in all areas of my life, while also continuing to trek on my Parkinson’s journey, one step at a time, one boot in front of the other.”
As the first people in the world to use IPS (induced pluripotent stem cells) with Parkinson’s patients, Gould said that the study that Summit 4 Stem Cell is backing is going to “explode in the world of regenerative medicine.”
The groundbreaking research has a local participant in Chris Whitmer, a Rancho Santa Fe resident who was one of the eight patients whose skin graft cells were biopsied and are in the process of being converted to IPS cells, which will transform yet again into dopamine-producing neurons.
Whitmer started noticing symptoms of Parkinson’s in 2003 — foot and hand tremors, which progressed to symptoms such as stiffness and slowness of movement. He didn’t receive a definitive diagnosis until 2007.
“It was a shock, it took awhile to come to grips with it,” said Whitmer, 53.
Like Gould, Whitmer is a strong believer in exercise and gets to the gym five to six times a week.
“That, to me, has pushed my symptoms back more than the medicine,” said Whitmer, noting he notices a big difference in the rest of his day when he is able to do work out.
Whitmer said he was lucky to pick Dr. Melissa Houser as his neurologist and when he heard about their study he was quick to sign up to be a participant, as well as do anything he could to raise funds for their research, gathering donations for both Summit 4 Stem Cell and the Parkinson’s Association of San Diego.
“It’s the first time that I heard of something that treats the cause instead of the symptoms and that’s the exciting part. It could actually stop the disease and reverse it,” Whitmer said.
In the next month, two cell lines will be going to Finland to be transplanted into Parkisonian-induced rats. The rats will be evaluated over 18 weeks to see if the cells are effectively integrated into brain tissue.
Pending approval from the FDA and Scripps IRB, the cells would then be re-implanted into patients’ brains.
Gould said the research team has learned a lot from trials and have figured a way through the obstacles.
“We really believe this is going to work,” Gould said, noting the only obstacle that remains is raising the necessary funds.
Whitmer is a stay-at-home dad to his 9- and 10-year-old children so he wasn’t able to make the time commitment to do the hike, but he is touched by what the Summit 4 Stem Cell climbers aim to achieve.
“It’s ambitious to say the least, I’m impressed that they’re even attempting it,” Whitmer said. “I think [the research] is the next wave of medicine. I almost call it medicine without medicine because you’re taking cells from your own body and replacing them with what you need. These pluripotent stem cells can reproduce any cell in the body so the possibilities of what we’re doing here is endless. It can help with Parkinson’s and so many other disorders that are out there.”
To learn more or make a donation, visit