By Joe Tash
When Carrolee Barlow was appointed CEO of an organization that researches and treats Parkinson’s disease earlier this year, it was a chance for her to bring together the skills, education and experience she has accumulated over her career.
“It’s very much of a coming home for me,” said Barlow, 50, a Solana Beach resident, of her appointment as CEO of the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center, which is located in Sunnyvale, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Barlow, who has a medical degree from the University of Utah, as well as a Ph.D. in molecular and developmental biology from the Karolinska Medical Nobel Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, has extensive experience in research, drug development and clinical trials.
At the institute, she wants to make a difference in the field of neurological diseases, focusing specifically on Parkinson’s disease, which is a progressive, degenerative condition that affects a part of the brain where movement is regulated.
“To me, the largest unmet medical need is finding solutions for (diseases of) the brain,” she said. “It’s a daunting challenge.”
The nonprofit institute that Barlow now heads was founded 25 years ago, and is unique, she said, because its focus is strictly on Parkinson’s, from research, to patient care, to clinical trials. The institute funds its $12 million annual budget through donations and from payments for patient care through private insurance and Medicare, Barlow said.
Each year, the institute’s clinic sees about 1,000 patients from the U.S. and foreign countries, including some residents of San Diego County. “We’re sort of the Mayo Clinic for Parkinson’s,” she said.
Among the most promising avenues for treatment of the disease is development of better measures of the progress of Parkinson’s, which can in turn help in creating drugs to slow down the disease’s march, Barlow said.
While she and her colleagues at the institute are excited about research in Europe on treatments that involve transplants of healthy cells into Parkinson’s patients, Barlow was more cautious about an experimental transplant project now underway at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.
Scientists and doctors have harvested skin cells from eight Parkinson’s patients and, through a complex process, converted them into brain cells that produce a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine helps the brain regulate movement in the body, and in Parkinson’s patients, the brain cells that make dopamine die off. The goal of the Scripps project is to inject the dopamine-making cells back into the brains of the Parkinson’s patients.
Barlow said researchers need to know more about the potential long-term impacts of this process.
“We still don’t know enough to make sure we’re doing this safely,” she said.
Parkinson’s disease affects an area in the center of the brain called the substantia nigra, which initiates movement. According to Barlow, researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes the disease, but there are apparently both genetic and environmental factors, such as toxins that can cause damage to the brain.
The disease also destroys other types of nerve cells in the body, which can affect patients’ sense of smell, their gastrointestinal tract, and even their hearts, Barlow said.
A number of famous people — such as actor Michael J. Fox and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno — have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which has helped focus attention on the disease, said Barlow. In addition, following the suicide in August of comedian-actor Robin Williams, Williams’ wife revealed that her husband had recently been diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s.
While many may think of Parkinson’s as a disease that affects the elderly, in fact, the average age of diagnosis is in the early 50s, Barlow said. The good news is that effective treatments do exist, including a synthetic version of dopamine.
“With really good care and intervention, you can have a long and productive life with Parkinson’s,” she said.
Although she has headed the institute since mid-February, Barlow continues to split her time between Sunnyvale and Solana Beach, where she resides with her husband, researcher David Lockhart. The two met at the Salk Institute in San Diego, where both were working at the time.
Along with her work at Salk, Barlow has also worked for Merck Research Laboratories, and also as chief scientific and chief medical officer for BrainCells, Inc., a biotech company she founded.
For more information about the institute, visit www.thepi.org.