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Michael J. Fox and Debi Brooks Accelerate Progress on Parkinson’s Disease

When it comes to leading his foundation, Michael J. Fox likes to say, "I’m not an MBA. I'm not a PhD. I'm not an MD. I'm a GED with PD and a high TBq." But the beloved comedian is perfectly serious when talking about his mission: "Purity of motive," says Fox. "We have no other agenda. We just want to figure this out."

"We" is Fox and The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research (MJFF) Executive Vice Chairman Debi Brooks. Fox and Brooks co-founded MJFF in 2000 nine years after Fox learned he had Parkinson's. Initially, Fox hid the disease. But on the set of his 1990s sitcom, Spin City, this became too hard. So he went public—to a surprising response. "I noticed that all these questions being asked were about Parkinson's," Fox recalls. "And I said, ‘Wow, this is an opportunity.'"

Together, Fox and Brooks, a Goldman Sachs alum, have seized that opportunity—bringing medical research and business expertise under one roof to accelerate progress for Parkinson's. Early on, they explored and pinpointed the ideal role for their philanthropy: to break down barriers to progress by ushering early stage ideas through the challenging drug development process. In particular, they focused on establishing biomarkers for the progression of Parkinson's. They also created Fox Trial Finder to help match patients with clinical studies, breaking through another barrier to progress.

As of September 2012, MJFF has raised nearly $300 million for Parkinson's research. Fox has also raised the hopes of Parkinson's patients, families, and the legions of people who want him to succeed. Well aware that any cure for Parkinson's will not likely be found in time to help Fox, he and Brooks have nevertheless managed to harness a palpable urgency for their pursuit—one that is underscored by Fox's condition. "I'm a presence every day, and so people are reminded [of] what they're doing."

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The fact that those [Parkinson's patients], as inspiring and powerful and motivated as they are, look to us as their avenue to a cure or to better treatments really steps up our sense of responsibility and our pride to be part of that community. - Michael J. Fox

I don't know if [we'll] find the answer in time for me. It's not about me. I mean, in a way I like to think that we'll figure this out and there will be a big line of people with Parkinson's to go in the door and get the thing and I'll be watching and then at some point I'll go, 'Oh, geez, I'd better get in line.' You know? I don't think I'll be at the head of the line. - Michael J. Fox

When people are speaking dryly and pragmatically...they're going to look across the table and they're going to see someone moving around. And they're going to go, 'Oh, this is connected to something. It's connected to people.' And that's always been there with us...We've always had patient involvement. - Michael J. Fox

There's a phrase...'disruptive philanthropy.' And that's the way we approach it. I mean, if we have to be disruptive, we'll be disruptive. As the status quo exists now, there is no cure. There is no effective treatment to eliminate symptoms and halt progression. And so if we have to disrupt things to alter that status quo where that is a reality then that's what we'll do. - Michael J. Fox

Even though we may be at the core of success in finding a new Parkinson's treatment, we are unlikely the party to take over the goal line. The cost of drug development is in the billions of dollars. The Fox Foundation will never likely be large enough to cover the cost of a single drug coming to market. So, our goal is to take that capital and increase the data and the robustness of the idea sufficiently, so that a deeper pocketed investor will take it over that goal line. - Deborah W. Brooks