For decades, the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF) has sponsored a clinical fellowship program at Columbia University to train young doctors for careers in Parkinson’s disease (PD) and other movement disorders. They come to the highly competitive program after completing a residency in neurology. PDF funds six to eight such awards each year. One “graduate” of the program is Yvette M. Bordelon, M.D., Ph.D., who is now an Assistant Professor-in-Residence at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center. Her training in clinical care and research under the supervision of Stanley Fahn, M.D., helped put her on the path to become a Parkinson’s-focused clinician and researcher.
It was the work with patients she found most valuable in her term as a fellow at Columbia. She says, “My doctoral work was primarily basic research, so the clinical work I was exposed to at Columbia led me to better understand the reality of Parkinson’s and, therefore, develop better research questions. For example, I came to focus on developing biomarkers, which I knew could make a difference for my patients.” Biomarkers, such as brain scans or blood tests, are measures of the presence or progression of a disease. There are currently no definitive biomarkers for PD, which makes it difficult to track its progression over time.
At UCLA, Dr. Bordelon now splits her time between seeing patients and conducting research focused on biomarkers. While at Columbia, she had begun studying the use of brain imaging as a biomarker for Huntington’s disease, another movement disorder. She continues this line of research in Huntington’s and now also pursues it in Parkinson’s disease. She is investigating the use of a specific brain imaging technique, known as PET scan, to measure the clumping of the protein alpha-synuclein that occurs in the brain of a person with Parkinson’s disease.
Dr. Bordelon believes that the development of biomarkers is a crucial step in finding new treatments that can actually slow the course of PD. And while her research in this area evolved from her direct work with patients, she finds that this research, in turn, informs her clinical practice — giving her a unique ability to tell people with PD firsthand about the latest scientific advances in the field.
It is clear from Dr. Bordelon’s work, that Parkinson’s specialists have a unique perspective and leadership to bring to patient care…and to science. The clinical fellowship program remains committed to training more young doctors who can share such skills with people living with PD.
Dr. Bordelon is Assistant Professor-in-Residence at UCLA and an investigator for the Parkinson Study Group. In FY2009, PDF’s $2.7 million grant to Columbia University included $650,000 to support the Fellowship Program. Most graduates of the program return to their home states and countries to lead — in many cases, to create — exemplary programs in movement disorders.