[Editor's Note: On June 6, 2017, Anne Shabason, an artist, hospice educator, and mother of two from Bolton, Ontario, a small town about 30 miles outside of Toronto, underwent Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to treat her Parkinson's disease. The FDA approved DBS for Parkinson's disease in 2002. Although it's shown to be safe and effective, agreeing to invasive brain surgery is no easy decision, even when you have your family and one of North America's premier neurosurgeons at your side.
Here, with support from Stan, her husband of the past 40 years, Anne talks about her life before Parkinson's, what the disease took away, and what she got back because of DBS. As told to writer Heather R. Johnson.]
I was an artist.
I worked in mixed media, Papier-mâché, and collage, inspired by dreams, birds, mystery. I had gallery shows and participated in studio tours.
Educated in thanatology, I worked in hospice care as a volunteer and education director for Hospice Caledon, an organization that supports people facing life-limiting illness and grief.
I trained volunteers who helped people through their transition.
Parkinson's disease changed all that.
My hands and my head were not coordinating, so it was impossible to do my art.
It started as a twitch in my leg. During a hospice workshop, my right leg started vibrating in a way I hadn't experienced before. I told a friend, "This can't be good."
Over the next year, my right foot vibrated more and more. I could not sleep well. In my dreams people lurked in corners, in dark places, and behind castle doors. I knew they were there and couldn't avoid the ambush. I shrieked and woke everyone in the house.
An anxiety attack—something I had also never experienced before—came next.
During a class I was teaching, my mouth got so dry, I couldn't speak. I stood in front of the class for three or four minutes, unable to continue. I pushed through and finished the class. That's when I realized this was more than jiggling legs.
That's when I went to see a doctor.
My first doctor, when I suggested it might be Parkinson's, didn't believe me. She sent me to a neurologist who told me I had to meditate more and calm myself.
A friend from hospice told me to phone the Toronto Western Hospital Movement Disorders Clinic. In January 2010, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
The doctor, a fellow, got all my stats and asked a lot of questions. He was so excited he knew what it was, he exclaimed, "You've got Parkinson's!" like it was the best thing ever. I must say, that wasn't the best news, but at least I finally had a diagnosis.
I could choose whether to take medication or not. The doctor said, "If Parkinson's is compromising your lifestyle, you should consider taking levodopa."
"Well I can't run my classes, I can't do my art, so it's compromising me," I said. And my health was going downhill. The shaking—my whole body moved—sleeping was horrible. Two to four hours max a night was usual. I had terrible anxiety and panic attacks and had to quit work.
So I started taking levodopa. It's taken in a four-hour cycle, but the medication didn't last the full time. I developed dyskenisia, a side effect of the medication that made me experience uncontrolled, involuntary movements. I was edgy, irritable, and focused on my watch like a drug addict. I'd lie on the couch, feel crummy and tired, and wait.
The medication cycle restricted where I could go. Fearing the "off" period, I avoided interaction with lifelong friends, which increased my feeling of social isolation. They would come over and cook with me and read to me sometimes, and that was fine, as long as it was during an "on" period.
There was incontinence, constipation, and fatigue.
I lost fine motor skills, like writing. And painting. My hands and my head were not coordinating, so it was impossible to do my art.
It was a terrible time.
The worst symptoms—what pushed me to consider DBS—were the symptoms no one could see. The anxiety and depression were so bad, the sleeplessness, not eating.
I projected a lot of my discomforts onto Stan. I reacted so badly to him. I actually separated from him briefly on two separate occasions and lived in a separate space—a self-imposed isolation. There wasn't anything he could do to help me really except sit back and watch.
I tried alternative therapies—a naturopath, an osteopath, a reflexologist and a Chinese medicine practitioner—but nothing seemed to help.
I felt like I was dying. Certain parts of my life were being taken away from me. I was a perfectionist, and I felt imperfect. It was a horrible feeling, to not be in control of myself.
The DBS Decision
I was familiar with DBS, a procedure that involves a neurosurgeon drilling small holes into your skull and implanting electrical leads deep in your brain to modify neural activity, reducing involuntary movements.
But I was convinced I'd never do it. I was brought up in a family that believed 'doctors make you sick and hospitals kill you.'
I worried the room wouldn't be sterile. Someone's cutting into your brain, you don't know what's going to happen. They're putting things in your body. I didn't want to risk possible infection.
And my doctor said he couldn't promise he would actually do the operation. It might be a fellow, but he'd be in the background in case anything went wrong. I wasn't comfortable with that arrangement.
When filmmakers Taryn Southern and Elena Gaby decided to make a documentary about people whose lives were changed by cutting-edge brain implants--and I agreed to participate—my doctor said he would for sure do the operation. They couldn't risk anything happening on the operating table on camera, so most of my fears went away.
My family supported the decision. My mother had trigeminal neuralgia, which is a very painful facial condition. She also had a stroke and what we now believe to be Parkinson's. My father, a retired dentist, managed her care and didn't give her the opportunity to see a specialist.
I felt them running the knife across my scalp, and drilling two holes in my head, but only as pressure, not pain.
When we were talking about DBS, my son, Joseph, said, "How can you not do this, for the sake of your family? Because if you don't, you'll end up like Grandma, who, for the last few years of her life, just lay on a couch because she didn't get any kind of outside help. If you even have a chance to improve your life or give yourself five extra years, why wouldn't you do that, for our sake? Are we not worth that?"
That talk really affected me, and I realized I had to try. Even though it was difficult, I had to be brave for my family.
Surgery, Recovery, and Tweaking
You have to be awake for part of the procedure—I was awake enough that my subconscious could hear, because they had to know how far to insert the electrodes. DBS targets the troublemaking areas of the brain. There's a one millimeter difference between success and failure.
I felt them running the knife across my scalp, and drilling two holes in my head, but only as pressure, not pain.
Once they were inside, they asked me to move parts of my body to see whether the right neurons were activated.
They put me to sleep to put a battery-powered neurostimulator in my chest. A wire that runs behind my ear and down my neck connects the electrodes in my brain to the battery pack. The neurostimulator creates electric pulses 24 hours a day.
I was moving around almost immediately after surgery. Recovery from the stitches took a few weeks, but everything else took a lot longer.
I couldn't read. My motor skills were still impaired, and my brain and my hands weren't yet linked up. I needed the device to be programmed and tweaked. Until that happened, I needed help.
The depression and anxiety, though, went away almost immediately. From that perspective, it was like I never had Parkinson's. I was so happy.
When they calibrated the electrodes, they adjusted how much electrical current goes to any one of four contact points on the left and right sides of the brain. If they increased it too much, a leg would start shaking, a foot would start cramping, or my tongue would feel thicker. It took a while to get it calibrated correctly to control the symptoms.
First it was five sessions in five weeks, then once a month, then every three months. Now I visit every six months. As the disease progresses, they have the ability to keep making adjustments. (DBS controls the symptoms, but it doesn't cure the disease.)
Once they got the calibration right, my motor skills improved. I could walk without shuffling. My muscles weren't stiff and aching, and the dyskinesia disappeared. But if I turn off the device, my symptoms return almost immediately.
Some days I have more fatigue than others, and sometimes my brain doesn't click. And my voice got softer – that's a common side effect of this operation. But I'm doing so much better than before.
I have a quality of life I didn't have before. Before COVID-19 hit, Stan and I traveled, went to concerts, movies, galleries, and spent time with our growing family.
Anne in her home studio with her art, 2019.
I cut back the levodopa from seven-and-a-half pills a day to two-and-a-half. I often forget to take my medication until I realize I'm feeling tired or anxious.
Best of all, my motivation and creative ability have clicked in.
I am an artist—again.
I'm painting every day. It's what is keeping me sane. It's my saving grace.
I'm not perfect. But I am Anne. Again.
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor types, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.