Group Climbs Mt. Kilimanjaro For Parkinson's Research

New Parkinson's Disease Research Project Could Offer Hope For Patients

A group of San Diegans has just returned from a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro that helped raise money to fund a research project to help those living with Parkinson's disease.

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The trek up Mount Kilimanjaro would be tough for anyone. The only way for Brad Aren to go up a hill was backwards, so that's just what he did until he could put one foot in front of the other.

"Having Parkinson's disease is a handicap on such an endeavor, but it's a matter of mind over body," said Aren, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 10 years ago.

Aren, who began training for his trek in March, said, "It's particularly frustrating when your mind says to do this and your body says no, it's not going to do it, and you hesitate and you shuffle, and you stumble and hopefully don't fall."

Falling happened a lot on the five-day hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. Aren was one of three people with Parkinson's in the group of 16 San Diegans who reached the summit.

Sherrie Gould, a nurse practitioner at Scripps Clinic, came up with Summit 4 Stem Cell and the goals were clear.

"To raise funds and draw attention to this amazing research that is happening right here in San Diego," Gould said.

In Parkinson's patients, brain cells which produce dopamine die and don't reproduce themselves like skin cells and hair cells.

"Without dopamine, you move too much, like tremor, or you move too little," said Scripps Clinic neurologist Dr. Melissa Houser. "You get stiff, slow, immobile, lose your balance, speech becomes a bit slurred and sometimes memory problems occur."

The group raised $210,000 of the $350,000 they need to fund a research project run by Houser and another doctor at Scripps Research Institution for Regenerative Medicine.

The doctors plan to take skin cells from six patients, turn them into stem cells and actually grow brain cells without the deficiency.

In the next phase, they would work to raise more money in an effort to give those cells back to the patient. Houser said patient-specific cells have a smaller chance of being rejected. Plus, removing the embryonic part of the stem cell removes the controversy.

They're still years away from putting this practice into place, but in the meantime, Gould said being extremely active can be extremely beneficial.

"People limit what they can do far beyond what they need to do," said Gould.

The project has not yet started, but the trip up the mountain has already changed at least one life.

"With that new life will be new excitement, new energy and new hope," said Aren. "Hopefully, we have the answer just around the corner."

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