The numbers kept climbing. First one, then two, and finally three of Shirley Luxemberg's seven office co-workers at a clothing accessories factory in Montreal were diagnosed with Parkinsons disease. Then in 2000, Luxemberg went to see a neurologist about stiffness in her legs. He told her she was in the early stages of the disease. “I almost flipped,” says Luxemberg, who retired as office manager in 1999 after 35 years service. “I don’t have to tell you, it was quite a shock to my system.” Luxemberg, 73, has followed with interest actor Michael J. Fox’s battle with Parkinson’s, an incurable neurodegenerative disorder that destroys brain cells responsible for producing a chemical messenger called dopamine. Parkinson’s struck three members of the production unit at CBC Television in Vancouver who worked with Fox in the late 1970s. That cluster spurred speculation about a possible environmental cause—perhaps a toxin, maybe a virus. That attention, however, also raised eyebrows among scientists who feel the study of genetics is a promising source of
answers to the mysteries of Parkinson’s, one that can’t be ignored.
Dr. Donald Caine, director emeritus of the UBC Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre, says he would like to investigate the Montreal foursome. Caine, who treats three patients in the Fox group but not Fox himself, is also following up on preliminary evidence of another four Parkinson’s sufferers who worked together in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. “If there’s a group of people in some situation—same place, same time—then the cause is likely to have been right there in the environment because they’re unrelated,” says Caine. “This is nothing genetic.”
Dr. William Langston is cautious about environmental influences. He’s chief scientific adviser at the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, established by the actor to expand funding of the world’s best research. In a statement on the group’s Web site, Langston and Dr. Caroline Tanner, director of clinical research at the Parkinson’s Institute in Sunnydale, Calif., acknowledge there is some evidence to suggest chemical toxins or certain bacteria, fungus or metals may cause some
Parkinson’s cases, but insufficient research to lead to a conclusion. “Limited investigation of the few reported clusters,” they add, “has yielded little significant data on possible links to Parkinsons disease.” At Toronto Western Hospital’s Movement Disorder Centre, the director, Dr. Anthony Lang, is interested in the small minority of patients who may get Parkinson’s predominately or exclusively because of their genes. “It’s the understanding of these rare but important genetic causes,” says Lang, “that may, I think, provide the breakthroughs we need.”
As the academics follow their different paths, patients are left to hope for answers. Luxembergs colleague Jack Fels, 84, onetime owner of the business, was diagnosed five years ago. “I guess everybody looks at it differendy,” he says. “At my age I figured, look, this is what old people get.” Two men in their 50s who worked with them and have Parkinson’s declined to be interviewed. Luxemberg recalls no unusual bouts of illness in her 35 years at the factory that might suggest a viral cause. She says they have one other thing in common aside from working together: they’re all Jewish. “The chosen people,” she jokes. But at this point, she’s more concerned about a cure for Parkinson’s than its causes. “When will they find something for it?” wonders the grandmother of three. “That’s what I want to know.” ESI
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