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Rochester Neurologist Named Senior Medical Advisor to Michael J. Fox Foundation

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Rochester neurologist has been named senior medical advisor to The Michael J. Fox Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease by accelerating medical and scientific developments.

Irene Hegeman Richard, M.D., associate professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, has worked closely with foundation officials for the last three years, helping evaluate research efforts and facilitating communication among scientific and medical communities and the general public. Her appointment to the newly created post comes at a time when the foundation is expanding its efforts to fund both basic laboratory and patient-oriented research such as clinical trials designed to evaluate new treatments for Parkinson’s disease.

“Irene’s clinical research perspective complements the scientific expertise of Gene Johnson, Ph.D., our chief scientific advisor, and her input will be a boon to our research staff and advisors in continually raising the bar on the patient-relevant outcomes we expect from every project we fund,” said Katie Hood, interim CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation. “Additionally, as a clinician with an active neurology practice, Irene has a deep understanding of the challenges faced every day by people living with PD, which is something the foundation values deeply, since patients are at the center of every activity we undertake.”

For three years Richard has served on the review committee for the foundation’s annual Clinical Discovery Program, which funds high-impact clinical projects in Parkinson’s disease. She has also spoken to friends, supporters and patients at foundation events across the country.

Founded in 2000, the foundation has funded over $95 million in research to date, either directly or through partnerships. The foundation is dedicated to ensuring the development of a cure for Parkinson’s disease within this decade through an aggressively funded research agenda.

“The people at the foundation are so knowledgeable, so pleasant, and so determined to do everything they can to stop this disease, that it’s a pleasure to work with them. I’m delighted to play a role in helping them decide how best to put resources to work to benefit patients,” said Richard.

As a neurologist, Richard regularly treats patients with Parkinson’s disease and is an expert on the psychiatric aspects of the illness, such as depression. She is leading a national multi-site study looking into whether common anti-depressant medications might be helpful in treating the disease.

Richard says that many Parkinson’s patients and their families don’t realize that depression can be a result of the disease itself.  Many people assume they are depressed because they have to deal with a chronic illness; while that may be true for some people, for many other patients, the depression is as much a part of the disease as movement difficulties.

Richard is also actively involved with the Medical Center’s deep-brain-stimulation program for Parkinson’s and other patients. Neurologists like Richard work closely with neurosurgeons, who implant a small electronic device into patients. The device, used mainly in patients who haven’t found relief using the broad array of medications now available, is designed to block aberrant brain signaling at the root of movement difficulties in Parkinson’s patients.

As an undergraduate, Richard attended Cornell University with the intention of becoming a veterinarian, but soon became fascinated with the brain and human behavior and decided to become a physician. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in biology, with honors and distinction, from Cornell, she went on to Yale, where she received her medical degree.

She has been with the University of Rochester Medical Center since 1991, first as a resident, then Neurology chief resident, and as a research fellow in movement disorders – conditions like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases and Tourette’s syndrome. She has been a member of the faculty since 1997. She is a member of the American Neurological Association and has directed workshops and given lectures at national meetings including the American Academy of Neurology and the World Parkinson Congress. 

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