A year ago, Roger Nelson could barely walk, had lost his sense of smell and couldn’t even smile.
Parkinson’s disease had ravaged his nervous system to the extent that, at the age of 50, the former marathon runner could no longer deal a pack of cards to play his favourite game, bridge.
Now, thanks to pioneering surgery which will give hope to millions of sufferers, the former marketing manager says he can enjoy life in a way he had not been able to for years.
Doctors at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol implanted two pumps into Mr Nelson’s abdomen which deliver a drug directly into the damaged part of his brain.
This has brought his dystonia – the involuntary writhing action which afflicts Parkinson’s sufferers – under control.
He can play cards, walk . . . and laugh again.
‘It has had a positive change in very many ways,’ Mr Nelson, who lives in Bristol, said yesterday.
‘It has been progressive little changes. One of the things that people with Parkinson’s experience is a lost sense of smell.
‘I had the operation on the Friday and by Sunday lunchtime I could smell. It was amazing.’
Four other patients who received the treatment have also shown a marked improvement, the doctors say.
They hope the procedure is a key to reversing the onset of the disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system which affects 120,000 in the UK and millions worldwide, including Muhammad Ali and Michael J Fox.
In Parkinson’s, a high proportion of the cells in the part of the brain which produces dopamine are lost. This chemical helps control the body’s movement.
The cause of the disease is unknown and there is no cure, although earlier this month U.S. scientists revealed that a patient with Parkinson’s disease had not experienced trembling for more than two years after being given a transplant of his own brain cells.
The stainless steel batterydriven pumps implanted in Mr Nelson and the other volunteers deliver a constant flow of a drug into the brain via catheters.
The drug, glial- derived neurotrophic growth factor (GDNF), encourages brain cell growth.
The pumps are refilled every two months with a simple injection and replaced every 12 months or so.
There have been several false dawns in recent years so the Frenchay doctors are cautious about their progress.
The procedure has been tested on a small number of patients and even if it continues to be a success it is unlikely to be widely available for five years.
A member of the research team, Nik Patel, said: ‘We’re a way from a cure yet and we have many hurdles to cross… but that remains a possibility.
‘We have to prove that this drug is continually effective, safe and does reverse the disease.’
However, consultant neurosurgeon Dr Steven Gill, who led the team, said they had already been surprised by the rapid effects of the treatment.
‘We thought the drug would take some months or years to be effective but some of the improvements were almost immediate,’ he said.
For father-of-two Mr Nelson the benefits have been obvious. His health had worsened over several years until Parkinson’s was diagnosed ten years ago.
Before the operation to insert the pumps last May, he had deterioratedto such an extent that he had difficulty walking a few hundred yards. Now he can walk up to ten miles a week and regularly goes to the gym.
‘It has improved my mobility dramatically. I used to get very severe dystonia,’ he said. ‘Today, although I still get it, it is much less and I can walk more than a mile before I experience dystonia.
‘We used to be quite keen bridge players but I got to the stage where I could not deal or shuffle the cards. Now I can fan the cards and pick them out and play again.’
But what has mattered most to him is regaining control of his facial movements – allowing him to smile once more.
‘Very shortly after the operation I noticed that I could be a bit more articulate because speech had become fairly difficult.
‘Then my wife passed a fairly risque comment and I started to laugh, which was the first time I had been able to laugh for a number of years.’
However when Mr Nelson enjoys a joke there is one difficulty – if he laughs too hard, the pump implants hurt.