A look at the esteemed career of Dr. Joseph Jankovic

Forty years after joining Baylor College of Medicine, the work of Dr. Joseph Jankovic isn’t slowing. As founder and director of the Parkinson’s Disease Center and Movement Disorder Clinic, his work has made a great impact on the lives of people living with movement disorders, making him an internationally recognized leader in the field.

Dr. Jankovic received Baylor’s Master Clinician award from Dr. Klotman.

This year alone, Jankovic, who is professor of neurology and holds the Distinguished Chair in Movement Disorders at Baylor, presided over the International Neurotoxin Association’s TOXINS 2017 conference and also was awarded the Texas Neurological Society Lifetime Achievement Award.

The International Neuotoxin Association, which elected Jankovic as its president in 2015, provides a platform for the exchange of information and ideas among scientists, clinicians and other allied health professionals about the science and therapeutic use of neurotoxins. It is an umbrella organization for all disciplines in medicine that use botulinum toxin for cosmetic and therapeutic reasons. The TOXINS 2017 conference was organized by Jankovic to help spread the word on the many different and benefitial uses of botulinum toxin, or what is commonly known as Botox®.

“Botox is used not just for cosmetic reasons, but more importantly for countless heath benefits in a wide range of diseases spanning nearly every discipline of medicine. Within neurology it is primarily used to treat dystonia manifested by involuntary spams of the face, neck and other body parts, tremors, tics and many other movement disorders,” Jankovic said. “That is one reason I worked to bring researchers from across the globe together for the TOXINS 2017 conference in Madrid, Spain.”

Research focus

For more than three decades Jankovic has led research that has shown the effective and safe use of Botox® and other botulinum toxin products to treat a variety of neurologic and other disorders. The results from the initial double-blind-placebo-controlled trial of botulinum toxin conducted by Jankovic led to the approval of Botox® by the FDA. Due to his efforts over the years, Botox® is now regularly used in the treatment of hundreds of different disorders.

Jankovic also served as the principal investigators in more than 100 research studies of genetics and experimental therapeutic of multiple movement disorders, including Huntington’s disease.

“In 1979 I was granted special permission from the FDA to treat patients with Huntington’s disease and other involuntary movement disorders with tetrabenazine,” Jankovic said. “Since that time I’ve treated thousands of patients and have seen amazing results that translated into marked improvement in the quality of life of patients with Huntington’s disease, Tourette syndrome, tardive dyskinesia and many other disorders.”

When the FDA began the approval process for tetrabenazine, Jankovic presented experience with the drug accumulated over more than a quarter century. His work was instrumental in the FDA approval of the drug, which is now the most effective medication for the treatment of chorea associated with Huntington’s disease. Although effective, the drug has some limitation and Jankovic is now working with other drugs that therapeutically deplete brain of dopamine, such as deutetrabenazine and valbenazine. He hopes that these drugs will be approved by the FDA this year.

Over his academic and research career Jankovic has been able to obtain competitive grants from National Institues of Health, NIH, many foundations, and industry. His research has been also supported by philanthropy, endowments and donations from grateful patients.

Jankovic also is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and is the principal investigator of the Parkinson Progression Marker Initiative (PPMI) at Baylor. PPMI is an international study supported by the Michael J. Fox Foundation to identify biomarkers of Parkinson’s disease progression.  He also serves on dozens of other scientific national and international advisory boards.

His work was recognized early this year by the Texas Neurological Society Lifetime Achievement Award. Jankovic shared a special message of gratitude with the group since he was unable to attend the ceremony.

Among his many other roles in research, Jankovic also has been a key part of many medical societies that promote collaboration and support for those studying movement disorder research. He was one of the founders of the International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society and was elected as its third president. He has been a member of a number of international neurological associations and societies and has been honored numerous times for his work. A small sampling includes “Great Teacher” by the National Institute of Health, the Guthrie Family Humanitarian Award, presented by the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation Distinguished Service Award, the Baylor College of Medicine Alumni Association Distinguished Faculty Award, the Fulbright & Jaworski Faculty Excellence Award, and the Baylor College of Medicine Master Clinician Lifetime Award. Since 2001 Jankovic has been listed among “Highly Cited Researchers” and in 2015 he was selected among “World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.”

Publishing, writing and editing go hand in hand with conducting research, and Jankovic has written more than 1,000 original articles and chapters, and edited or co-edited over 50 books and volumes. Many standard textbooks currently used by students are among them.

Patient Care

His efforts in research are equal to his patient care. The Parkinson’s Disease Center and Movement Disoder Clinic at Baylor sees more than 1,000 new patients per year and accomodates over 10,000 patient visits. The databse for the Parkinson’s Disease Center and Moverment Disorders Clinic contains records on more than 35,000 patients. A reflection of the special bond Jankovic has with his patients can be seen hanging on the walls of the clinic. One of his patients, Robert Flatt, a professional photographer, donated his nature photographs to Jankovic as a thank you to him, and they are now displayed in the lobby and clinic rooms. Flatt has said in the past that he hopes the photographs are reminders that despite the diagnosis of a movement disorder, there is still a colorful life to live. (See a slide show of Flatt’s work here.)

Another example of his influence on patients can be found in Allison Toepperwein. She was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease. After becoming Jankovic’s patient, he suggested exercise, along with a treatment plan, to help slow progression and control symptoms such as tremor. Through his support Toepperwein took on this new challenge and excelled beyond what she had imagined. She not only improved her symptoms and overall health, but competed on the nationally televised show American Ninja on NBC. Tens of thousands auditioned for the chance to compete to finish a physically challenging obstacle course, but only a small few are strong enough to make it to the televised round. She has competed again and has advanced to be included in a second appearance on the show.

“I was referred to Dr. Jankovic, because I was rare; a woman in her 30s with Parkinson’s disease. I had a lot of questions, and was told Dr. Jankovic would have the answers, if they could be answered. Within 48 hours of meeting him, I had my tremor under control for the first time in five years and I had a renewed sence of life. Dr. Jankovic was a game changer for me,” Toepperwein said.

Within the clinic Jankovic leads a team of doctors that share his focus on research and patient care. Dr. Joohi Jimenez-Shahed, assistant professor of neurology, and Dr. Adriana M. Strutt, associate professor of neurology at Baylor, recently acted as co-directors at this year’s Texas Tourette Symposium in Houston. They spoke with patients and other medical professionals on this often misunderstood syndrome. Jankovic also presented an overview of tourette syndrome at the symposium. (See a patient story from the symposium here, as reported by KPRC2). A few years ago Jankovic was able to recruit Dr. Joshua M Shulman, a physician-scientist from Harvard, to direct translational research and to foster collaboration between the Parkinson’s Disease Center and the genetics researchers at Baylor and around the world.

Life and family

His career isn’t the only part of his story that proves his drive for success. As a teen living in Czechoslovakia, Jankovic visited extended family in the U.S. and after much thought and contemplation, he applied for political asylum. His decision to move to the U.S. and leave his family behind was helped by his dream of becoming a doctor. The chances of him attending medical school were slim in his home country due to his religious background.

He had to learn English and finish all high school requirements in one year. His family was able to move to the U.S. to join him four years later, and at that time he was already attending the University of Arizona in Tucson while working a number of odd jobs to support himself. He earned his medical degree from the University of Arizona College of Medicine in 1973. That was followed by an internship at Baylor College of Medicine and a residency at the Neurological Institute at Columbia University where he was elected as chief resident. He returned to Baylor as a faculty member in 1977, founding the Parkinson’s Disease Center and Movement Disorder Clinic. The Clinic has been recognized as a Center of Excellence by the National Parkinson Foundation, the Huntington Disease Society of America and the Tourette Association of America.

In 2014, more than 50 years after leaving Czechoslovakia, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic, the oldest and most prestigious university in Central Europe, invited him to serve on the inaugural International Advisory Board in recognition of his scientific accomplishments.

While it might seem that Jankovic has worked nonstop on his medical career since coming to Baylor 40 years ago, keeping his family close was even more important. He has worked alongside his wife for years, giving much credit to her for his success. Not only has Cathy Jankovic helped to raise their family, she also has manged the audio/ visual side of his clinic. Her vast database of more than 20,000 videos provides a visual record of patient’s movement disorders. These videos are important when it comes to tracking the progression of a disease, before and after treatment. They have three sons. The youngest is a filmmaker who has worked closely with his father on an award-winning documentary about one of Jankovic’s patients, astronaut Rich Clifford. His middle son also is a successful filmmaker, and his oldest is a certified public accountant. Jankovic has six grandchildren and “two more on the way.”

Jankovic also is the program director of the Movement Disorder Fellowship at Baylor and among his many academic goals is to encourage the next generation of doctors. Many of his numerous fellows now hold academic positions all over the world and have become leaders in the field of neurology and movement disorders.

“I came to Baylor 40 years ago because it was known for innovation. Today, I would love to see more opportunities for visiting doctors working and observing in the clinic and labs here. Baylor has a unique opportunity to support new ideas and collaborations being in the heart of the Texas Medical Center. This would not only increase the impact and reach of Baylor but would also impact the lives of patients with movement disorders and other neurological diseases.”