Mark Stacy: From Southeast Missouri to international expert

Sunday, August 28, 2011
Dr. Mark Stacy, originally from Cape Girardeau, is a neurologist who now teaches at Duke University. (Kristin Eberts)

Cape Girardeau native Dr. Mark Stacy is one of the preeminent experts on neurology, having published more than 100 manuscripts on Parkinson's disease, dystonia, tremor and other movement disorders. Earlier this week Stacy spoke on all things Southeast Missouri and health care related.

Stacy, who earned his undergraduate degree from Southeast Missouri State University in 1981, comes from a prominent Southeast family. The son of a former speech professor and later president of the university, Dr. Bill Stacy, and former Southeast Missouri University Foundation alumna and development director Jane Cooper Stacy, Mark attributes much of his success to his parents, and he is proud of their accomplishments.

"I'm very proud of what they've done for that school," said Stacy of his parents. "I really enjoy walking the campus. There are not many people, other than my brother and sister, I think, who could walk through that campus and know that their parents had such history and such impact."

Helping others

Wanting to be looked up to like his uncle was a key reason Stacy first wanted to go into the medical field.

"I think I went into medicine for family reasons. My uncle was a surgeon in Vietnam, and his sisters, my aunts, really thought the world of him. And so I think I sought that type of approval."

He also pointed to his time at Southeast as a reason he went into medicine, and specifically neurology.

"When I was in college at Southeast I took an animal behavior course with Dr. Janzow, and essentially I am studying the same thing in a human model."

Stacy went on to medical school at the University of Missouri. And a few stops later, he would land at Duke University Medical Center, where today he serves as a professor of medicine/neurology, associate dean of clinical research, director of the Neurology Clinical Research Organization and director of the Duke University Movement Disorders Center.

To date Stacy has given more than 50 international and national presentations, been featured in major media outlets, authored numerous journal articles and book chapters, and regularly contributes commentary on Parkinson's disease for WebMD.

Ali Parkinson's center

Honored with the Best Doctors in America and the Best Doctors in North Carolina awards, Stacy's contributions to neurology and health care in general are too numerous to list. But one connection is particularly fascinating.

From 1997 to 2003 Stacy served as the director of the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Research Center in Phoenix -- initially called the National Parkinson's Foundation Center of Excellence.

Stacy recalls that a man named Jimmy Walker called the center unexpectedly and said a fundraiser for local charities called Fight Night would soon take place. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali would be in town, and he asked that the money go toward helping others with Parkinson's disease.

After attending the planning meeting, the organization decided to sign on and asked, since the center was relatively new, that Ali dedicate it. Not only did he help dedicate it, he agreed, upon request, to have the center named after him.

After meeting Ali and his wife at the center's dedication, Stacy asked Mrs. Ali what she wanted him to do with her center, to which she replied, according to Stacy, "'I want you to find a cure for Parkinson's disease, but Muhammad wants you to take care of everybody ... regardless of what money they have.' So I think we essentially started a friendship at that moment."

The search for a cure

While seeing patients in Phoenix, Stacy said a major discovery was made.

Over "the course of really the same week, two patients came in with their wives, and their wives had virtually the same quote: 'Doctor, since he was last here he's gambled away $60,000 at a Native American gambling facility.' So I saw patients every three months and it turns out they lost $20,000 a month and never had gambled before."

Stacy said that credit card companies will allow you to lose $20,000 a month before cutting you off, thus explaining the identical amounts.

After looking over what he had prescribed the patients previously, he noticed he had increased the dose of one particular class of medication, to which he described as like "flipping a switch" in the patients' behavior.

After reporting this finding in 2000, the academic community received the discovery with caution and both the academic and pharmaceutical communities received the news with worry. Since then, Stacy said there has been an international meeting on impulse control disorders, and there is a greater understanding on how these medications affect Parkinson's disease patients' brains.

Today that class of medication is still used, but prescribers, like Stacy, will typically prescribe a lower range dosage. Additionally, this discovery also allows doctors the opportunity to warn patients.

Stem cells

The discussion on stem cells carries strong emotions for Americans, but some believe the treatment could present potential breakthroughs in a variety of areas -- including neurology.

Though Stacy concedes that research is improving, noting an example in Europe where researchers have been able to take a pluripotent cell and cause it to make dopamine, a neurotransmitter that Parkinson's disease patients have a deficiency of, the medical community doesn't know how to make the cell identical to that which was lost.

A key area for many, especially older adults, is the loss of cartilage in a joint. Stacy did not know of anyone looking into how to make cartilage grow, a hypothetical breakthrough that might reduce the number of joint replacements, but did express concern.

Using the example of a hip and theoretically injecting stem cells in it in an effort to restore lost cartilage, Stacy's question is how do you make the cartilage stop growing?

"One of the issues with pluripotent cells is maybe those ... could be cancer cells. And you put them in somebody and they continue to grow and continue to grow and become harmful."

Health care reform

Asked about health care reform, Stacy refers back to his time at the Ali center and the opportunity he had to tell patients not to worry about the financial aspect of treatment -- that Ali had paid their bill.

"I know what a relief that is to people who have a chronic disease and are worried about every penny."

Stacy said that at the time the medical costs were about $80,000 a year to care for 25 to 100 people, and that he's afraid that cost to patient ratio couldn't be achieved in today's environment.

He concedes there is not an easy answer to the current debate, but that if there is a change, people need enough time to adapt.

"I believe entrepreneurial Americans will adapt to any change, but we sit in limbo without leadership to move things forward."

Though he humbly says he's "not smart enough" to determine what has to be done, he does say that the issues have not been defined well and that the two most important parties have not been invited to the table: physicians and patients.

"I don't believe that Congress, or Washington maybe, has really ever brought that group to the table. I think that they made decisions in the '60s to care for patients through Medicare and Medicaid and physicians adapted very entrepreneurly. And that was a golden age of physician reimbursement. I think that's why physicians have hung on to that for so long, but it doesn't make sense to me for us to deliver health care to insurers like airplane seats."

Parents, advice to others

Stacy's father was named interim president of the university during his sophomore year at Southeast and president during his junior year. Though he says it might have been different for his brother and sister, he didn't experience a downside to being the son of Southeast's president, but it was different.

"I did notice there was a change in the way I was perceived for a short time. That wasn't a horrible experience, it taught me a lot. But I would say that visibility was not welcome for a college junior," said a chuckling Stacy.

"My mom use to say, 'Just know that anything you do I'll hear about before you get home.' I think she was probably right. And she didn't tell me everything she heard about, which was good."

Most Southeast graduates know of Stacy's mother. And according to him, she probably knows nearly every person who went to the university.

"She's hard to describe in some ways. My staff describes me as a whirlwind. ... I think you would know where I got that from."

Stacy has had an impressive career. While the subject matter he deals with everyday is quite complex, his message to today's students is simple.

"I think you have to first determine who you are, then you have to determine what you want to do. And if those are linked, you need to run after what you want to do as hard as possible."

He continued, "I don't believe I really just lucked into what I do. I learned very early in life that if you were a Stacy you need to work hard, and I have. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do and who I was, but once I did, I went after it."


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