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J. William Langston: Pioneer in the Field of Parkinson's Disease Research

In 1983, a major breakthrough was made that would forever alter the trajectory of Parkinson’s disease research (PD), when a group of six young heroin abusers became mysteriously frozen.  They were conscious, but completely unable to move or speak. Doctors were perplexed.

Enter Dr. J. William Langston, a movement disorders specialist. Langston recognized that, in a matter of mere days, each had developed all of the symptoms of advanced PD.  He decided to treat the patients with levodopa, the gold standard therapy for the disease. Miraculously, they were able to again move around, and talk.

While the positive response to levodopa wouldn’t last, Langston furthered parlayed his research into pioneering fetal-tissue transplants, leading to the miraculous recovery of two of the “frozen addicts,” as they would become known. And the effects would be even more widespread: His discovery of the underlying cause of the addicts’ symptoms, a neurotoxin called MPTP, would prove to yield results that would forever alter the landscape of Parkinson's research.

By isolating MPTP as a toxin that could induce parkinsonism in humans, Langston would translate his findings into the creation of the first pre-clinical model of PD that replicated virtually all of the motor features of Parkinson's. Now, scientists could re-create the disease in the lab, greatly enhancing their ability to study disease process, in turn, better testing potential therapeutic approaches.

“Langston’s discovery of MPTP, and his subsequent studies to clarify its mode of actions, is one of the four major landmark discoveries of all time in the field of Parkinson’s research,” said Anders Björklund, MD, PhD, of Lund University in Sweden, himself a pioneer in the field.

The Case of the Frozen Addicts, as Langston’s discovery was immortalized in a compelling book, could have been the kind of scientific discovery for any researcher to rest with. But Langston would instead devote the next 30 years to finding a cure for PD, continually searching for innovative ways to tackle the search. Today, The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) recognizes Langston, now the scientific director, chief executive officer and founder of the Parkinson's Institute (the PI) in Sunnyvale, California, for a lifetime devoted to improving the lives of those living with Parkinson's, awarding him the Robert A. Pritzker Prize for Leadership in Parkinson’s Research.

“He is simply the Leader,” said fellow neurologist C. Warren Olanow, MD, FRCPC, of Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. “His intelligence, rational thinking, demeanor, sense of fairness and organizational skills have allowed us to overcome hurdles and move the field forward in a way that no other individual I can think of could have accomplished. Langston, however, has never rested on the laurels of his groundbreaking work on MPTP. His ongoing work at the PI continues to drive forward progress toward better treatments across a wide variety of therapeutic targets.”

Langston founded the Parkinon's Institute on the concept of translational medicine, believing that the most powerful research should be conducted in a way that combined early scientific research with clinical research and patient care, and to do so in a fully integrated way. It is a model that MJFF believes in, and one that has returned real results for Langston: His work with MPTP has been an early and ongoing example of its success from early discovery, to pre-clinical development, and into the clinic. Today, work is ongoing to determine whether medications targeting biological processes associated with MPTP or other processes such as abnormal protein folding could one day slow or stop the progression of PD.

Langston also maintains the role that first made him famous — that of the physician, seeing patients on a daily basis. His team at the PI has conducted over 100 clinical trials since being founded in 1988, work that has brought new drugs to patients more quickly.

Today, The Michael J. Fox Foundation is partnering with Langston on studies delving into new targets to treat dyskinesia, as well as the use of patient-specific induced pluripotent stem cells for the purposes of finding novel drugs to treat PD. Langston’s team is also working with the Foundation to home in on what’s going on in Parkinson’s disease prior to the appearance of the cardinal symptoms of the disease (resting tremor, slowness of movement, and rigidity). By better understanding what’s happening early on, Langston’s team aims to find drugs that could stop the progression of the disease before these symptoms occur.

But for all of Langston’s scientific success, to many, including Michael J. Fox Foundation CEO Todd Sherer, he is best known for his personal touch as a caring physician, a mentor, and a friend.

“Bill has long been a true pioneer and a real mentor to so many,” said Sherer. “Whether through his own research or advising the Foundation on the work of others, he always has patients’ benefit at the forefront of his mind."

“Our Foundation has been fortunate to partner with him since our earliest days. His counsel has been invaluable, and his integrity and belief in a collaborative approach are inspiring.”

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