Do you remember when “stem cell” was a bad word in the American religious context, conjuring fears of mass abortions to fund mad scientists “playing god”? Thankfully that was a long time ago and human embryonic stem cell research in the US has prospered, giving us much insight into the mechanisms of treating abnormal human pathological conditions. But this expansion of research funding came too late for many American scientists, and therefore the void was filled in countries with leaders who weren’t afraid of scientific discovery. And ironically, these non-US scientists discovered that stem cells need not even come from an embryo! If stem cell research was fully funded in the US fifteen years ago, we would have discovered that on our own. If we had gotten over our religious fears in the 1980s and 90s, research would have put our religious fears to rest.
In 2006 a Japanese researcher named Shinya Yamanaka discovered that “mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent” (quote from the Nobel Prize in Medicine he received for this discovery). In other words, our understanding of stem cells has come so far along that we can now take adult cells and convert them into something identical to human embryonic stem cells. This new stem cell is often referred to as an induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC).
The Latest Research in Parkinson’s Disease
In the 5 March 2015 edition of Cell, a group of researchers published a paper titled, “Successful Function of Autologous iPSC-Derived Dopamine Neurons following Transplantation in a Non-Human Primate Model of Parkinson’s Disease.” This team harvested cells from crab-eating macaques and derived iPSC neurons and transplanted them into the macaques with Parkinson’s disease.
Their results were not perfect, but some of the macaques who received this treatment experienced a reversal of symptoms. Positive results included gained motor activity and, most interestingly, in my opinion, large-scale growth of dopamine neurons in the transplanted areas. Not all macaques responded to the treatment in this way, and the researchers do not yet fully understand why some macaques respond more positively than others, but this research still highlights rapidly advancing treatment options for Parkinson’s disease patients.
I should also note that this doesn’t mean if you have a friend or family member who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, a cure is just around the corner. This kind of research has a long way to go, and an even longer way to go before we’re ready to begin testing this kind of treatment on humans.
The sad truth is, however, that if not for religious fears stunting the progress of American scientists, we’d be a lot closer to a cure for Parkinson’s than we are now.