Sometimes, to make a difference, you have to move mountains. Or better yet, you can climb them. That’s exactly what a local nonprofit called Summit4StemCell is planning to do this October, when a small team will raise funds for Parkinson’s disease while hiking up Mt. Everest.
Summit4StemCell supports non-embryonic stem cell research that could lead to huge leaps forward in the treatment of Parkinson’s. Nurse practitioner Sherrie Gould started Summit4StemCell when she began working with Parkinson’s patients at the Scripps Clinic, and learned that it would cost around $300,000 to kickstart a small pilot project. She’s since raised nearly a million, and that’s not counting the pledge campaign currently underway.
The group’s first big event was in 2011, when Summit4StemCell climbed 19,339-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. Mt. Everest’s Base Camp is below the Nepalese mountain’s notorious “Death Zone” at the peak, but it’s still a long and grueling climb to 17,600 feet.
“And just like Kilimanjaro, everyone on the Everest team meets my only prerequisite,” says Gould. “They either have Parkinson’s, or have a family member or close-friend connection to Parkinson’s. This hike isn’t just about adventure, it’s about the cause.”
Parkinson’s, typically diagnosed around age 62, is a degenerative disease of the brain and nervous system that progresses with the death of dopamine-generating cells. Non-embryonic stem cells, cultivated from a patient’s own cells, potentially could stave off this debilitating loss, which leads to tremors, mobility problems, and dementia.
“The research is incredibly fascinating and complicated,” says Gould. “It’s so exciting because it also offers hope for heart disease, macular degeneration, multiple sclerosis, and more.”
A study of eight Parkinson’s patients is being conducted by Jeanne Loring, PhD, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Scripps Research Institute, and Melissa Houser, MD, director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center and the Deep Brain Stimulation Center at the Scripps Clinic, where Gould works.
Alan Truitt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s four years ago after noticing a slight tremor in his left hand. He’s among the eight patients who will receive the stem cells, and Gould invited him to join the Mt. Everest team.
“I’ve always been athletic and active,” says Truitt, who had already climbed Kilimanjaro independently of Summit4StemCell in 2009. The best Parkinson’s medicine is exercise. The more active you can stay, the better your prognosis.”
Truitt and his teammates have spent the last several months preparing for the Everest climb, gathering most weekends on local trails to log major miles and push themselves harder. They’ll do a four-day training hike in the Sierras shortly before they leave for Nepal.
The significance of physical fitness — and the fact that a Parkinson’s diagnosis doesn’t have to stop you from bagging a major peak — is part of the message the Everest team will be relaying as they check in frequently on social media. A filmmaker will be joining the group to capture the trek.
But the most important thing, emphasizes Gould, is raising awareness and funds for this groundbreaking research. After Everest, she’ll be planning a massive bike ride to keep the momentum going. Her laboratory also offers monthly tours to anyone interested in the research.
“We’re going to find an answer to this terrible disease,” she says. (www.summit4stemcell.org) ANNAMARIA STEPHENS