UACC member studying link between Parkinson’s and melanoma

G. Timothy Bowden, PhD
G. Timothy Bowden, PhD

University of Arizona Cancer Center member G. Timothy Bowden, PhD, is part of a research team looking into a potential link between Parkinson’s disease and an increased risk of melanoma.

Dr. Bowden indicates that published studies have shown that Parkinson’s patients are between two and 20 times more likely to be diagnosed with malignant melanoma — and vice versa.

“It wasn’t until very recently that this correlation became apparent,” Dr. Bowden said. “It’s imperative that we help get this message out there, both for Parkinson’s patients and for those with melanoma.”

This particular study is close to Dr. Bowden, as he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease five years ago.

“I’ve had a long-standing interest in skin cancers, so shortly after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I spent a great deal of time studying potential links between the two,” Dr. Bowden said.

Dr. Bowden is a professor emeritus of cellular and molecular medicine, having retired from the University of Arizona two years ago. His research is in the field of molecular and cell biology, pharmacology and toxicology, and radiation oncology. He has been a UACC member since 1978, served as the Center’s chief scientific officer and continues to have an active research laboratory at the UACC.

He began working with Scott Sherman, MD, PhD, a professor of neurology at the University of Arizona, as well as Dr. Bowden’s primary neurologist, on this study more than a year ago. Fellow neurology researcher, Torsten Falk, PhD, and Brian S. McKay, PhD, research associate professor of ophthalmology and vision science, joined the research effort soon after.

This group of researchers is working on the theory that variations in the oculocutaneous albinism II gene (OCA2) act as the link between Parkinson’s and malignant melanoma. The OCA2 gene product helps control the synthesis of melanin, which is present in melanocytes in the skin and in neurons in the brain — neurons that often die in Parkinson’s patients. Alterations in pigmentation controlled by the OCA2 gene could lead to the death of L-DOPA-producing neurons and malignant transformation of melanocytes in the skin, giving rise to potential malignant melanoma formations.

The group has spent the past year gathering preliminary data and is in the process of applying for grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Michael J. Fox Foundation to continue its research.

“April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, and we want Parkinson’s patients to start getting melanoma screenings as soon as possible,” Dr. Bowden said. “It never used to be a part of the standard Parkinson’s exam. Now, Parkinson’s patients need to schedule regular screenings — at least twice a year.”

In addition, Dr. Bowden and his wife, Diane, are preparing for an annual Mount Lemmon hike to raise funds for Parkinson’s Wellness and Recovery Gym (i.e. PWR! Gym), a Parkinson’s-specific exercise program. Becky Farley, a physical therapist and exercise physiologist at the University of Arizona, started the PWR! program in 2010 to emphasize specific exercises that help reduce symptoms for Parkinson’s patients.

Last year’s 15-mile hike covered 5,000 feet in elevation and raised more than $10,000. This year’s hike, in conjunction with the Parkinson’s Wellness Recovery Program, is scheduled for April 15.

“We’ve found that certain intense exercises help ease the motor disturbances and rigidity that accompany Parkinson’s disease,” Dr. Bowden said.

March 26, 2012