Hikers head to Mt. Everest to benefit Parkinson’s research
By Marta Zarella
Most people would agree that a recreational hike up California’s Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in California and the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, is adventurous. For Alan Truitt, it is a training hike.
The Ramona resident and his daughter, Aimee Blaisdell, will be climbing Mount Whitney in September. Truitt’s goal is a trek to a scenic viewpoint at 18,500 feet, just beyond Mount Everest base camp at 17,598 feet.
He, son Adam, friend Bob Baker and seven other dedicated hikers will head to Nepal in October as part of the Summit4StemCell Mount Everest Team trek to Mount Everest Base Camp.
“We live an adventurous life,” said Lorraine Truitt, Alan’s wife.
The Truitts live with their two dogs in San Diego Country Estates across the street from Mount Gower, which they hike two or three times a week. Alan, retired from 30 years in public service, has always been active. He played tennis for many years, enjoyed camping, hiking — including a number of hikes to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and to the top of Mount Whitney — and various other outdoor activities with his family.
This trek to Mount Everest is not his first quest with Summit4StemCell, nor is it his highest climb. In September 2010, he was part of a Summit4StemCell group that hiked to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, elevation 19,341, in Africa, .
Truitt learned he had Parkinson’s disease three and a half years ago after a routine checkup with his doctor. He asked about the tremor in his index finger and the feeling that he was losing his sense of smell. His doctor ordered neurological exams and confirmed that Truitt had developed Parkinson’s, which has no cure. According to the Summit4StemCell website, “Parkinson’s is a disease that attacks a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, which is the principal manufacturer of dopamine. There is no established cause of the disease although there are abundant theories, such as the dopamine itself being metabolized into a toxin that turns around and attacks the dopamine manufacturer. It’s as if the dopamine becomes its own worst enemy. Whatever the cause, there is no cure as yet and no test to determine if you have it until the usual selection of symptoms appear. At that point approximately 80 percent of the substantia nigra is dead.”
Breakthrough technology by Japanese researcher Dr. Shinya Yamanaka changed adult cells into stem cells, which can be used to form any other kind of cell. This research earned him a Nobel Prize for medicine in 2012. This technology could mean an end to the ethical debate over the use of embryonic stem cells, opposed by many religious groups.
Neurologist Dr. Melissa Houser and Dr. Jeanne Loring from The Scripps Research Institute are working with eight patients, including Truitt, using their skin cells through this process. Those skin cells are being transformed into what are known as pluripotent cells, which will be transformed in the lab into dopamine-producing brain cells.
Pending approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the cells would then be re-implanted into patients’ brains. Money is needed to get the FDA approval. That need was the basis for the Summit4StemCell group, whose tag line is “Raising Funds, Raising Hope. New Hope for Parkinson’s.”
Led by Scripps Clinic Movement Disorders Center Nurse Practitioner Sherrie Gould, the group of hikers includes three hikers with Parkinson’s disease. One is Truitt. The other six hikers are their friends and family or have been affected by Parkinson’s in some way.
Truitt said the most difficult part of this journey won’t be his disease or the medication he takes, but the three-day plane trip to Nepal.
The goal of the hike is to raise funds and awareness for the non-embryonic stem cell research project under way at The Scripps Research Institute. The research is totally funded by grassroots efforts of the patients.
Hikes are one of many fundraising efforts the patients have undertaken to raise the $2.5 million needed to get FDA approval for the stem cell technology. So far, they have raised about $700,000.
“Exercise is ultimately good for this disease,” said Truitt. “When I was first diagnosed, I had no idea what to expect, what was in my future.”
The medicine he takes several times a day has allowed him and his family to continue their active lifestyle.
In October, Truitt and his fellow trekkers will board planes for the long flight to Nepal. There they will load 20-pound backpacks with personal supplies and spend a few days acclimating to the higher elevation. Then the fun begins.
Sherpa guides will lead them and the pack yaks — cousins to cows that look like slender, long-legged horned buffalo — with food and camp supplies during the two-week trek.
To learn more about Truitt’s story via his Summit4StemCell video or to donate to the cause in his name visit http://pasd.donorpages.com/Summit4StemCell/AlanTruitt/
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