$500,000 gift launches new clinical research effort in peripheral neuropathy

November 30, 1999

A generous gift of $500,000 from Jack Miller of Lincolnshire, Illinois, the founder and president of Quill Corporation, will be used to launch a concerted effort by neuroscientists at the University of Chicago to investigate the basic biology of peripheral neuropathy and to search for better treatments and a cure for this common nerve disorder.

The gift will fund two, two-year research fellowships for young neuroscientists, providing them with laboratory equipment and clinical resources. One of the investigators will concentrate on the basic science of peripheral neuropathy and the other will perform clinical studies involving this disease.

It will also support the establishment of a specialty clinic to provide comprehensive diagnosis and treatment for people with peripheral neuropathy. The clinic, expected to begin operation in January of 2000, will include neurologists, an expert in orthotics and a physical therapist.

"Peripheral neuropathy is a neglected and frequently misdiagnosed nerve disorder," said Raymond Roos, M.D., professor and chairman of neurology at the University of Chicago, and one of relatively few neurologists considered an authority on this disease.

"Because the causes are so varied, and are often not known, and because it is frequently a symptom of some better-researched or 'more glamorous' disease, it hasn't received the attention it deserves. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of patients in this country who suffer because of the discomfort and disability associated with this disease, and our inadequate treatments for their problem."

Peripheral neuropathy is a common disorder caused by damage to the peripheral nerves --those nerves and nerve processes that are located outside the brain and spinal cord. It has many causes, ranging from direct traumatic injury to the nerves; damage to or swelling of the sheaths around nerves, such as in carpal tunnel syndrome; circulation problems, such as atherosclerosis; or autoimmune diseases, such as Guillian-Barre syndrome or arthritis.

Neuropathy is a frequent complication of diabetes, affecting an estimated 60 percent of diabetic patients. It can result in pain, sometimes constant and quite severe. Although the causes can vary, peripheral neuropathies produce relatively similar symptoms including progressive numbness and weakness in the arms and legs and pain in the hands and arms, legs and feet.

The goals of the research effort include finding better and more specific ways to diagnose and treat peripheral nerve damage, to assess motor and sensory nerve function and to monitor the effects of treatment.

The researchers also hope to determine the feasibility of establishing a national database and registry of patients with peripheral neuropathy in order to gather the first accurate and comprehensive statistics on the disease's frequency, as well as racial, ethnic, socio-economic or geographic variations in prevalence. These data may provide important clues to identifying the underlying basis for the great majority of neuropathies in which no cause is found.

Work on the database and registry will involve a collaborative study with the University of Chicago Department of Health Studies.

"Despite its extraordinary frequency -- and the numbers are going up as the population ages -- few neurologists or other specialists have devoted their maximal efforts to peripheral neuropathy," said Roos, "and the consequent lack of knowledge has impaired our ability to treat it. In fact, nearly half of all cases are 'idiopathic;' we simply don't know the cause."

"The principles of nerve damage and rescue may be similar for both the peripheral and central nervous system," added Roos. "Studies in either area could have an impact on our knowledge of neuroscience as a whole. Peripheral nerves are more accessible than the central nervous system, so that there may actually be significant advantages in investigating the peripheral nervous system to answer important neuroscience questions."

Mr. Miller, 70, despite his extraordinary entrepreneurial, organizational, financial and motivational talents, has a perfectly ordinary case of idiopathic peripheral neuropathy, a disorder that affects about three percent of everyone over age 60. He first noticed symptoms a few years ago, when he developed pain in his feet, not enough to prevent him from working but enough to cause a great deal of discomfort and to disturb his sleep. After searching for a diagnosis and then seeking neuropathy specialists, he became frustrated by the lack of understanding of the disease and decided to intervene.

"I admit my interest in promoting this research is, in part, somewhat selfish," Miller said. "But there is a real need for more and better knowledge about this disorder and I was glad to be in a position to make a difference, not just for me but for a surprisingly large number of people who now have, or will get, this disease."

Miller's $500,000 gift is intended as the initial step toward establishing a major center for peripheral neuropathy, which would include basic and clinical research as well as patient care, outreach and education.

To make an appointment or request more information on the neuropathy clinic, under the direction of Roos and colleague Betty Soliven, M.D., associate professor of neurology, call Judy Richman, R.N., at 773-702-6221.

University of Chicago Medical Center

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