At 83, UT researcher working to better treat Parkinson’s Disease

Dr. Adam Heller, Ernest Cockrell Senior Chair in Engineering Emeritus (KXAN Photo/Amanda Brandeis)
Dr. Adam Heller, Ernest Cockrell Senior Chair in Engineering Emeritus (KXAN Photo/Amanda Brandeis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — At age 83, Dr. Adam Heller isn’t sure he’ll ever retire. The research professor at the University of Texas at Austin has over 260 U.S. patents and 392 pending. Among his many awards, Heller was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2008, the highest technology award in the United States.

His latest ambition: making it easier for Parkinson’s Disease patients to get the medicine they need. Dr. Heller says Parkinson’s is a condition where underdosing and overdosing can be harmful to a patient.

“Underdosing causes the Parkinson’s Disease people to freeze, they cannot move, they stop moving. Overdosing makes them move in an uncontrolled way,” said Dr. Heller. “So they have to be maintained in a narrow drug concentration in the body, and the drug lives only for 90 minutes.”

Dr. Heller and his son set out to fix that problem, making the medicine delivery more efficient and effective.

They developed the first device to continuously deliver drugs into the mouth at a controlled rate, achieving steady drug levels in the body throughout the day. It’s a custom fit retainer paired with a miniature disposable propellant driven drug pump. Once in the mouth, the drug is continuously delivered to the back of the mouth where it is swallowed with saliva and absorbed through the gastrointestinal route.

Device created to continuously deliver drugs into the mouth at a controlled rate
Device created to continuously deliver drugs into the mouth at a controlled rate (KXAN Photo/Amanda Brandeis)

“This is the first example where we can continuously pump a conventional solid drug into the mouth and we hope that this is just the beginning of pumping all of the drugs that are short-acting and people need continuously,” said Dr. Heller.

For advanced Parkinson’s Disease, Heller says this would be an alternative to a current device – one that must be put in surgically and can have complications. He hopes his device will also be more affordable.

“I would love to still be alive. I would love to see it in people, widely used in the world,” he said.

For decades the UT Austin researcher has worked tirelessly to make the world a better place. He says part of that drive comes from being a Holocaust survivor.

“I’m thinking of my friends that were just as bright as anyone I knew. I think of my cousins. I think about my relatives,” said Dr. Heller. “And they can’t do, they can’t work. So somebody has to.”

Heller says he and his family were kept in inhuman conditions.

“The Hungarian Holocaust differed from all of the others in that number one, the Hungarian population so enthusiastically supported it, that they could complete the murder of the Hungarian Jews in seven weeks. In Poland, Holland, France it took much longer.”

He vividly remembers being in a concentration camp.

“We are in barracks just the way you see in the movies, the beds three stacked up, three stacked high. We are full of lice, we are hungry, I lost half of my weight when I was 11.”

Dr. Heller hopes his latest device improves the quality of life for many. He believes it could one day help treat Multiple Sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries and Myasthenia Gravis.

If everything goes as planned during the clinical studies phases, Dr. Heller says the drug could be available in three years.

President George W. Bush awards the 2007 National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Dr. Adam Heller during an East Room ceremony at The White House in Washington, DC on Monday, September 29, 2008. Photos by Ryan K. Morris
President George W. Bush awards the 2007 National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Dr. Adam Heller during an East Room ceremony at The White House in Washington, DC on Monday, September 29, 2008. Photos by Ryan K. Morris

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