Keep your eye on the stem cell ball, Part 2

Posted by Jesse Reynolds November 6, 2008
Biopolitical Times

Sharon Begley of Newsweek has written another excellent blog post, this one on why stem cells are unlikely to produce a treatment for Parkinson's disease, specifically, and neurological diseases, in general. It's not just that the patient-specific cells produced by new reprogramming methods (or the earlier proposed cloning-based method of SCNT) would carry the same genetic defects as the patient: "Transplanting them into the women would be like putting a cirrhotic liver into an alcoholic whose own liver was kaput," writes Begley.

The other problem is that brain is very, very complex. In the case of Parkinson's, says neurobiologist Jeffrey Kordower of Rush University, until scientists better understand the causes of the uncontrollable movements of its victims, then "No one should do clinical trials with stem cells." In fact, he's quite pessimistic: "In my opinion it will take a major miracle for stem cells to make a difference in Parkinson's disease."

Fortunately, there is progress in neurological diseases with stem cells. But instead of steps towards cellular therapy, stem cells are being used to test drugs. This leads me to make an early prediction for 2009: With the end of stem cell research as a political vehicle, its advocates are likely to temper expectations. They'll not just move out the goalposts on the timeline towards treatments, but the touted uses of stem cells will shift from potential cellular therapies to models of human diseases in Petri dishes and better drug testing methods. These new purposes will win fewer votes than "your own personal biological repair kit," but they are also much more realistic.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: