Dr. Oksana Suchowersky

February 2015

For the first second installment of the series, we’d like to introduce you to Dr. Oksana Suchowersky.  Dr. Suchowersky is currently Professor of Neurology, Medical Genetics and Pediatrics at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Alberta, the Toupin Research Chair in Neurology at the University of Alberta, and past President of the Canadian Movement Disorders Group.  Dr. Suchowersky received her MD from the University of Calgary.


Parkinson Alberta (PA):  Where did your career path with Parkinson disease begin?


Dr. Oksana Suchowersky (DOS):  I’ve been working with people with Parkinson disease since 1984 when I first started my practice.  I set up the Parkinson’s clinic at the University of Calgary and Foothills Hospital in ’84.  The first major research project I started was in 1987 where we were trying to find out if Deprenyl, also known as Selegiline and/or Vitamin E would slow down the progression of Parkinson disease.  And since then, I’ve been involved in Parkinson’s research primarily to find a better treatment for Parkinson’s as well as to test different compounds to see if we can slow down progression of symptoms.


PA:  Why did you choose to pursue research as it pertains to Parkinson disease?


DOS:  When I was doing my training in neurology in Vancouver, I had the fortune to work with Dr. Donald Calne who is a very well-known Neurologist and researcher in Parkinson disease.  Working with him stimulated my interest.   And, when I moved to Calgary further developed that interest.


PA:  Was Parkinson disease always your field of interest?


DOS:  No, I actually started out being interested in genetics.   Part of what I do here at the University is research in the neurological hereditary disorders such Huntington’s disease.  And, now, of course, it turns out that Parkinson’s most likely has a significant genetic component.  So my interest in genetics is now able to take in Parkinson’s as well.


PA:  Could it end up being like a domino effect for some diseases?  If you find a key in one, is it possible it could work in other diseases?


DOS:   It is possible because there may be a final common pathway by which the nerve cells deteriorate.  So, yes, it may translate from one condition to another.


PA:  What are the current research questions you are trying to address?


DOS:   First of all, we are still working with Duodopa.  When I moved from the University of Calgary to the University of Alberta, one of the first research programs I started was to look at whether Duodopa helps patients to control symptoms of Parkinson disease. We have been able to translate that to a clinical program in Edmonton so any patient with advanced PD who is interested can be considered for Duodopa Therapy.  This is an alternative to surgery or to taking medications frequently during the day.  I’m very happy that we have been able to institute a new program to improve treatment of patients with Parkinson’s and now, they have started doing it in Calgary as well.


Currently, I’m continuing to do some research with other treatments -- looking at how to treat motor symptoms better, non-motor symptoms, and how to treat Dyskinesias better.  The second part of it is to look at neuroprotection.  By that, I mean, to see what compounds may slow down progression of Parkinson disease and we are just starting a new study.  We are looking for individuals who have just been diagnosed with PD who may want to try a new neuroprotective therapy.


PA:  What does neuroprotective mean?


DOS:  It means that it slows down progression of symptoms of Parkinson’s.  It may be a medication.  It may be exercise. But right now, we are looking at a specific medication that has been used to control blood pressure that we think, or at least on animal models, looks very promising in slowing down Parkinson’s symptoms.


PA:  How is clinical research different from basic research?


DOS:  I’m a clinical researcher so I only work with people.   I depend on the basic researchers to find things that look promising in the lab in Parkinson’s animal models.  Then we (clinical researchers) take those promising findings to see if they work in Parkinson disease.  Secondly, we need to make sure these treatments are safe.


PA:  I see, so, and we’ll use Patrick’s interview (from our Fall 2014 issue) as an example.  Dr. Flood was looking at the immunology; if he makes it so far in to his, then you can turn around…


DOS:  Yes. Then, I would take his research and develop a clinical trial where I would try it in people to see if it works.


PA:  Is there anything that you see in the pipeline that’s maybe not quite ready yet that you find interesting or exciting on the horizon?


DOS:  I think Patrick’s work is very interesting and there is some evidence to suggest that decreasing inflammation may help people with Parkinson’s. There are some interesting things happening with gene therapy -- improving or maybe modifying the genes that may be affected in Parkinson’s.  I think the whole question of exercise is very interesting in Parkinson’s.  But, ultimately, we are still waiting for basic researchers to tell us what causes Parkinson’s because that’s the big mystery.


PA:  True.


DOS:  Even after almost 150 years of knowing what Parkinson’s is and knowing that Parkinson’s affects all ethnic and racial groups, we still don’t really have any idea of what really causes it.  So, I think we are still waiting for the basic science to tell us that so that we can move forward.


PA:  Any words of advice for people affected by Parkinson disease as research moves forward?


DOS:  I think it’s important that people with Parkinson’s participate in research.  Unless we get the participation, we can’t do the clinical work and we can’t find the improved treatments.  I also think to consider donating to the organizations that fund research whether it’s provincially or nationally or internationally.  I think more funding is more important.


PA:  Are there clinical research trials that happen through all the different stages of Parkinson’s?  I wonder if sometimes when people get to an advanced stage of Parkinson’s they maybe don’t see a reason to participate.  Are there still opportunities available for them?


DOS:   Yes.  For example, right now, we have three potential research trials:  One for just diagnosed individuals to see if we can slow down progression; one for people in the moderate stages to see whether we can decrease Dyskinesia and wearing off; and, a third for more advanced patients to try different treatments, such as Duodopa, to see if we can improve their symptoms.  Typically, we do have research opportunities for people in all stages of the condition.


PA:  So there is still hope truly for ALL people with Parkinson’s to be involved in clinical research trials and to contribute to the future of Parkinson disease.


DOS:   Absolutely.


PA:  On a more personal note; what do you enjoy most about your research and your job?


DOS:   I enjoy working with the patients.  And I think participating in clinical research gives them hope that not only may they be helping their symptoms, but that their efforts may be helping individuals who may get Parkinson disease in the future.  Working with people with Parkinson’s and being able to help them, that is the most rewarding. 


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