November 14, 2019 / All Stories

A passion for understanding the brain and Parkinson’s

From a premier academic medical center to a research foundation, Maurizio Facheris, M.D., has learned Parkinson’s patients desire one thing.

Maurizio Facheris, M.D., is the medical director for neuroscience development at AbbVie.

When he fell in love

He may not have initially been the eager student in the first row in medical school, but Maurizio Facheris, M.D., had known he was interested in science, genetics and biology since high school. The Italian-born doctor believed that medicine allowed him to combine those interests with helping others. Initially, he thought his calling was as a cardio surgeon, but learning about the heart didn’t evoke the passion he felt when he sat in a different lecture. That lecture was about the brain.

“For neurology, it was such a fascinating topic. Everything we feel and what we process comes from the brain,” Facheris eagerly describes. “It’s not really your gut. It’s the brain and a bunch of neurotransmitters that create a thought, a feeling, or a movement. I just fell in love.”

For the first time, Facheris says, he was in the front row. At first, Facheris was assigned to an Alzheimer’s program, but when he started his residency in Milan, Italy, he took interest in Parkinson’s research. Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder where the brain loses its ability to produce dopamine, which leads to muscular rigidity, tremors and slowness of movement.

“This track was exciting for me because, unlike Alzheimer’s, in the simplistic view of that time, I thought if we could stop those neurons from dying and make them regrow, we could restore their function or for example control movement. In Alzheimer’s the main work is focused on preventing further degeneration. Once the neurons that created a memory are gone, that memory is gone forever, as well as the personality of that patient, even if we could put in new neurons.”

Parkinson’s gets personal

Facheris had two people in his life who had a profound impact on the way he looks at Parkinson’s disease today. The first was his uncle, who passed away before Facheris was 10. He remembers his uncle’s stuttering, soft, incomprehensible voice, but at the time Facheris didn’t fully understand what was happening to his uncle’s body.

Later, once Facheris was deep into his medical studies, a friend who was only 36 years old opened up about his diagnosis.

“He was worried and ashamed to tell our entire group of friends about his illness, but he felt comfortable telling me because of my work,” Facheris recalls. “This is when I realized the emotional toll Parkinson’s has on a patient. At the time there were only a few public figures openly talking about the disease, so he felt very isolated.”

Celebrity platform to speed research

By the early 2000s, Parkinson’s was more recognized and understood thanks to a few high-profile patients. In 1998 actor Michael J. Fox announced his diagnosis and two years later he started a foundation with a single, urgent mission: to eliminate Parkinson’s disease.

During this time, Facheris was busy with medical research and treating patients as a research fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and then back home in Italy at a local hospital, where he joined a consortium supported by a Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) grant.

“Once I joined the consortium, every year we were asked to update the foundation with the results of our research. On one of those occasions, they said, ‘You know research, you know patients, and you’re a physician. We are opening a position for a clinician; we can use you’. It seemed like a natural fit.”

Facheris applied, got the job, and moved back to the U.S. where Foundation staff and supporters made the priority very clear. Slow down, halt, or reverse the disease. They want scientists to find a cure.

“Through the Foundation, I met many patients and heard how the disease was impacting their daily life. People with Parkinson’s wanted to sleep better, move better. Their hopes were for a cure so they could have their lives back.”

One move to reach thousands more

Always knowing Parkinson’s patients want that cure, Facheris took a role as medical director in neuroscience development at AbbVie. “I like that, here at AbbVie, we’re looking at the patients from the very beginning to the very advanced stages of the disease.”

“Progress toward a Parkinson’s cure requires many talented, passionate people working together,” added Todd Sherer, Ph.D., CEO at MJFF. “We at the Foundation are grateful to Maurizio for the contributions he is making toward our shared goal of a world without this disease and glad that we can still work with him closely.”

More than 20 years after falling in love with neurological research, Facheris is hopeful for the thousands of patients he’s connected with during his career. He says scientists have a better understanding of what’s happening in the brain and of the protein in the brain and potential targets for further research that aim to slow down the progression of the disease.

“When I came to AbbVie, I thought of my friend, of those 1,500 Parkinson’s patients I would see as a physician in Italy. I think of the patients I met while in the non-profit sector, and I know here I can reach 100,000 people. I feel like I’m helping so many more,” says Facheris. “Where we are today, I can say in my lifetime we will find an answer to modify the disease and slow progression and for that I’m excited and hopeful.”

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