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Progress and Hope for 5 Chronic Health Conditions

Promising treatments emerging for Parkinson's, MS, Hep C and more

Michael J Fox speaking at a confrence for parkinson research

Jamie McCarthy/WireImage

Actor Michael J. Fox has been a long-time advocate for Parkinson's disease research.

Not so long ago, a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or lupus meant lifelong disability, chronic pain and even an early death. But thanks to a flurry of medical advances in recent years, these and other once-debilitating conditions are, or soon may be, tamed by new treatments.

Parkinson’s disease

What it is: A gradual, progressive deterioration of the nerve centers in the brain that coordinate movement.

Prevalence (U.S.): 1 million.

New treatments: Early last year the FDA approved Xadago, a tablet that can be added to treatment when standard medications aren’t controlling symptoms. Meanwhile, a diabetes drug may help to address one of the underlying causes of Parkinson’s. While not yet approved for use in Parkinson’s patients, the drug has been shown to decrease tremors in people with Alzheimer’s. Clinical trials are now being designed to test whether the drug is effective for those with Parkinson’s, according to the Michael J. Fox Foundation. 

Prognosis: People with Parkinson’s who do not exhibit dementia have only a one-year lower life expectancy than those who do not have the disease. 

Famous people who have it:  Actor Michael J. Fox, singer Linda Ronstadt. 

Peripheral Neuropathy

What it is: A disorder that affects the nerves that send messages from the extremities to the brain. It’s usually caused by another underlying condition, most often diabetes. It can cause tingling, pain or numbness, usually in the hands and feet.

Prevalence: 20 million.

New treatments: While symptoms can be alleviated with painkillers and other medications, there is currently no treatment that can reverse neuropathy. But there is hope: In a phase-two study at Northwestern University in Chicago, those with diabetic peripheral neuropathy who received two low-dose rounds of a nonviral gene therapy called VM202 reported more than a 50 percent reduction in their symptoms that lasted for months, with virtually no side effects. It also improved their ability to perceive a very light touch. A larger, phase-three study is currently underway.  

Prognosis: While peripheral neuropathy doesn’t usually shorten life span, an underlying condition like diabetes or autoimmune disease can. Sixty to 70 percent of diabetics develop peripheral neuropathy.  

Famous people who have it: Musician Eric Clapton, commentator Glenn Beck. 

Singer Toni Braxton posing for a photo on the red carpet for Lupus fundraising event

Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

Singer Toni Braxton has the chronic autoimmune disease lupus.

Multiple Sclerosis

What it is: A disease in which the immune system attacks the central nervous system, destroying myelin, the substance that protects nerves in the brain, spinal cord and optic nerve. Patients suffer from pain, fatigue and poor motor function. 

Prevalence: Nearly 1 million.  

New treatments: Ocrevus, shown to slow primary progressive multiple sclerosis and reduce relapses, was approved by the FDA early last year. In 2016 the FDA also approved Zinbryta, a monthly immune-modulating injection, to prevent relapses. 

Prognosis: Americans with multiple sclerosis have a life expectancy seven years shorter than people without the disease.

Famous people who have it: Actress Teri Garr, talk show host Montel Williams, writer Joan Didion.

Lupus

What it is: A chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation, pain and swelling and can damage the skin, joints and, in severe cases, internal organs.

Prevalence: 1.5 million 

New treatments: Approved by the FDA in 2011, Benlysta was the first new treatment for lupus in more than 50 years. It offers an alternative to powerful immunosuppressive drugs and high doses of steroids. Researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville have had success regulating immune cells in mice by combining the diabetes drug metformin with 2-deoxyglucose, which inhibits glucose metabolism. 

Prognosis: With close follow-up and treatment, between 80 and 90 percent of lupus patients have a normal life expectancy. 

Famous people who have it: Actress Kristen Johnston, singers Toni Braxton and Selena Gomez. 

Hepatitis C

What it is: A virus that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a chronic, lifelong disease that attacks the liver. It is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person.

Prevalence of chronic hepatitis C: 3.5 million.  

New treatments: In 2016, the FDA approved Zepatier and Epclusa to treat hepatitis C infection. Cure rates of between 90 and 99 percent have been reported with these drugs, depending on the type of infection. 

Prognosis: A 2014 study found that the 10-year survival rate of those with advanced hepatitis C infections who responded fully to treatment was 91 percent, about the same as people of the same age and gender in the general population. The 10-year survival rate of those who partially responded was 74 percent.

Famous people who’ve had it:  Actress Pamela Anderson, singers Naomi Judd and Steven Tyler. 

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