Stories of Hope

Jim Wong

Jim Wong, Yes on Proposition 71, “Story of Hope”

I am a cell biologist and I have Parkinson’s disease.  When I studied developmental biology in graduate school 30 years ago, I never dreamed that my life would literally become a case study of cell biology and biochemistry 20 years later.  That chapter started 10 years ago, when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. 

In some ways I am a typical Parkinson’s patient; it took three neurologists and several months of testing before I admitted that, at the age of 42 with my career and family life at their most vigorous stages, I might in fact have this progressive, incurable, neurodegenerative disease.  My very first dose of Sinemet (a direct replacement for the dopamine my brain is lacking) was a stunning confirmation; as the sole true diagnostic indicator, my response to the medication was classic.  After the 15 minutes that it took for the chemical to reach my brain, my affected right side began to tingle and a warm relaxation swept down my right arm.  It was definitive. 

I was also uniquely prepared to understand my situation.  The biochemical lesion was well-known even then, so that drugs could be specifically targeted to repair or at least mask it.  My detailed records of balancing my medications (hour by hour) have impressed my doctors and nurses.  I remember telling my wife- and myself- that day, if only I can last for 10 more years of work, there will be new therapies and new medications that will be much more effective.  I could not envision a cure.

In those first days of fear and frustration, my wife, two daughters and I didn’t know how fast my disease would progress. Fortunately, the rate has been slow.  I have also been responsive to medications, and a succession of effective new drugs has been produced over the last decade.  At first, I didn’t know if I’d be able to walk at my daughters’ high school graduations; this summer, I walked my older daughter down the aisle to my new son-in-law.  Nevertheless, Parkinson’s is still unpredictable and debilitating, and there can be no regimen of substitute molecules that can match the sublime coordination of normally-functioning brain cells.

Time has also brought me to a place where my work may influence our rate of progress fighting this disease; I direct a research program to develop and test new sets of disease biomarkers for a major supplier of biotech and clinical diagnostic tools based in California.  So, just as Michael J. Fox can contribute his celebrity to fund-raising and supporting Prop 71, I can contribute my expertise in the laboratory to characterizing this disease at the molecular level.

I clearly understand the potential of embryonic stem cell therapies to rebuild dopaminergic neurons and cure Parkinson’s patients like me. This is a real possibility, but it will take at least 10 more years of the most aggressive research to make it a reality. That is why I support Proposition 71 now. And I am hoping to last for the next 10 years.