Dr. Allison Willis saw potential in Parkinson’s disease (PD) research during her very first week of clinical training at Washington University. She was working in the operating room and helped someone with Parkinson’s disease stop shaking for the first time in 15 years.
“It was a transformative experience. I saw potential for research and clinical practice to come together in a way that meant a lot to me. By the end of that first week, I was sold.” says Dr. Willis.
After caring for adults and children with movement disorders, Dr. Willis was inspired to pursue research that would lead to more patient-focused treatments and a cure for Parkinson’s disease. That’s when she discovered APDA.
“I had exposure to individuals and families who benefitted from the exercise and community outreach programs and caregiver support groups that APDA offered at their St. Louis chapter,” she says.
And in 2007, she applied for and was awarded a post-doctoral research fellowship from APDA. “The fellowship allowed me to not only find my place in the world of Parkinson’s research, but to stretch in directions and pursue paths that had never been crossed, at least in the PD and neuro world,” she says.
During her fellowship, she worked on an environmental epidemiology research project that explored what environmental factors could be behind PD progression. Dr. Willis is determined to find ways to slow progression without people having to take a pill.
She believes that we need to put more emphasis on quality comprehensive care for people living with PD. In fact, some of her recent research has been inspired by a patient that she cares for. That patient came to her and said: “I read some of your research about what causes PD, but I already have it. What are you doing for me?”
This question stuck with Dr. Willis and inspired her most recent series of research projects, which she believes are going to be fundamental in the way we think about PD care and how to improve outcomes.
“People who have PD deserve researchers to focus just as much on how to best improve their survival and quality of life after being diagnosed,” she says.
Dr. Willis has a very positive outlook on the future of PD. “We have learned an incredible amount of new information about what might be happening in the brain of someone who has PD and that’s from basic science,” she says.
Her research has shown us a great deal about how we can better care for people with PD, how we can reduce hospitalizations and nursing home placement, and of course, how we can improve survival.
“If the next ten years are as transformative as the last ten years, then we really are entering an exciting time for Parkinson’s disease research,” she adds.