The Doris A. Howell Foundation hosted a panel of Parkinson’s disease treatment specialists who presented the advances in research and the challenges that still lie ahead in the search for a cure for this terrible disease.
The panel presented and discussed topics related to the research advancements currently being conducted, the efforts of the Parkinson’s Disease Association to continue funding Parkinson’s Disease research, testimony from a Parkinson’s patient, the latest in treatment, and a caregiver’s perspective on the challenges of providing care for a Parkinson’s Disease patient.
To understand the advancements made to treat patients with Parkinson’s, it is important to understand what happens in our brain that causes this degenerative disease. We all have nerve cells that release dopamine, responsible for sending signals to the part of our brain that tells our bodies how and when to move. When these nerve cells break down, dopamine production is interrupted and our bodies have trouble moving the way we want it to move.
Stem cell therapy has been at the forefront in the treatment of Parkinson’s, but it is surrounded with controversy. Many of us remember all the debate stemming from embryonic stem cell research. It has only been recently that a person’s stem cells could be duplicated by isolating skin cells. The notion of cultivating and then transferring stem cells of our own was discovered by Shinya Yamanaka, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2012, for “the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent”. The controversy is over and new ways to build on Yamanaka’s research in treating Parkinson’s disease brings awareness to the illness itself.
Jeanne F. Loring, Ph.D., Research Professor, Scripps Research Institute, started the panel by explaining how Parkinson’s disease is treated. “The time has finally come to have research like this done!” With more than 30 years of research on Parkinson’s, she explained that there are two different kinds of stem cells in our body – those from our bone marrow, and those found in our cartilage, bone and fat. Both of them have limited abilities; certainly not the dopamine producing cells needed to keep our bodies moving. And then there are those stem cells that are NOT found in our bodies and that are cultured in a petri dish that have the ability to give rise to every single cell in our body: the pluripotent cells—or the “swiss army of cells”, as she referred to them in our panel.
This perspective encourages all who are touched by Parkinson’s Disease – patients, family, friends and caregivers: it offers personalized treatment by isolating the patient’s skin sample to induce pluripotent stem cell growth and then transfer these cells back to the patient’s body. The idea is to reproduce the dopamine producing cells to treat patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
But does it work? Supported by NIH funding, the transplant of stem cells in 74 patients has been successful. In some cases, people saw no change, and in others the difference was dramatic. Over the course of 16 years of follow-up, the dopamine levels continue to increase in those who have benefitted from treatment.
But there is still much to be done. The therapy works, but the problem is that it is inconsistent, especially since the stem cells derived from in vitro fertilization tissue are hard to dissect, not to mention that working with stem cells from embryos is hard in the US.
The relevance of this research lies in the ethics of the diagnosis and treatment of Parkinson’s, and sounds like an extremely viable option to treat patients with this devastating disease. Testing of dopamine nerve cells can be conducted before cells are transplanted into one’s brain. The process is in early clinical trials and has the possibility of becoming a reality in the next 3-5 years. The uses of cultivated stem cells can be translated to the treatment of other degenerative diseases, such as Macular Degeneration. A research paper just published the progress of a patient transplanted last month in Japan. San Diego also heads the “first list” with the transplant of cultivated stem cells for the treatment of Diabetes.
The other side of the equation of conducting and continuing with research is the patient and patient advocate involvement. It is estimated that the NIH funding for this kind of research has dropped by 34%. A research program such as the one Dr. Loring is conducting has only a 1 in 10 chance of being funded by NIH. So funding additional lines of research requires more creativity each day.
Read more on Dr. Loring’s research here.
About the Doris A. Howell Foundation:
The Doris A. Howell Foundation for Women’s Health Research is committed to keeping the women we love healthy, advancing women’s health through research and educating women to be catalysts for improving family health in the community.
The organization does so by funding scholarships to scientists researching issues affecting women’s health; providing a forum for medical experts, scientists, doctors, researchers, and authors to convey the timely information on topics relevant to women’s health and the health of their families through its Lecture and Evening Series, and by funding research initiatives that will create women’s health awareness and advocacy in the community.
For more information about the Doris A. Howell Foundation, please visit www.howellfoundation.org.