Parkinson’s disease is a progressive degenerative illness that causes damage and nerve cell loss in the brain. The dopamine-producing cells are vital for smooth and controlled muscle movement. The loss of these cells due to Parkinson’s disease is currently irreparable, and treatment is limited. While there’s not yet a cure for the disease, there is reason for hope. There’s been significant advancement in clinical research studies using human stem cells to repair the damaging effects of Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease worsens over time but is a very individual illness. Beginning with minor symptoms such as a hand tremor, the progression of the illness can lead to life-changing symptoms that include difficulty swallowing and speaking, impaired balance, and limb rigidity. Medications that pass chemicals to the brain to produce dopamine are available, but they’re a form of symptom management – not a cure – and cannot give back what’s been lost. A treatment that repairs and replaces motor control cells using stem cells would improve the quality of life for many and open the door to treatments for other neurological illnesses and injuries. Progress is being made.
A recent study showed stem cells repaired Parkinson’s degeneration in mice, an encouraging result that brings us one step closer to achieving the same effect in humans. The mice were implanted with nerve cells created using stem cells, and four to five months later, they displayed improved motor skills, bringing back movement that had been impaired. While human brains are much larger and complex, this study’s results have reinforced the potential of stem cell treatments. To reverse what’s currently permanent damage and replace cells that died from Parkinson’s disease would give back so much to those suffering and be an enormous breakthrough for science.
The power of stem cell treatments
Stem cells have already been used to treat a range of illnesses and injuries. They are a part of countless studies in the medical field because of their almost unbelievable capabilities. Given the right conditions, stem cells can replicate any cell in the human body and can even help grow tissues and organs. But the trick for researchers focusing on treatment for Parkinson’s disease is to learn how the cells they are replicating act once put in the brain and whether the circuit they create leads to the correct result.
Muscle movement, everything from walking to talking, is a complex process. Our brains send signals to other parts of our brain, and the path they take and connections they make are an important piece of the puzzle. Research studies like that of the mice focus on tracking the circuits of these signals. If understood and able to control, they could enable doctors to place replicated cells to cultivate and recreate a healthy, functioning circuit that repairs what’s lost by Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases.
An area researchers have already seen success is repairing damaged corneas with stem cells. They took cells from their patients’ healthy eyes and used them to treat damage caused by an injury in the other eye. This, among other clinical trials, shows the significance and power of stem cell treatments. However, like many other journeys to scientific discovery, there have been negative effects and outright failures that call into question whether the risks are worth pursuing the reward.
Risks of stem cell treatments
The possibilities of stem cells seem endless, but as much success researchers have seen in this area’s advancement, there are many victims of stem cell therapy malpractice. Patients have had procedures done with the promise of healing and improving their lives only to end up in worse condition than before the treatment. With as many as 1,000 stem cell treatment centers in the U.S. and no precedent for negligence and accountability, reining in the industry to protect individuals hasn’t and won’t be easy.
The possibilities, mixed with many successes, is what continues to drive the field. Stem cells could change the face of medicine through saving and prolonging lives and reversing damage from illnesses and injuries. Parkinson’s disease is just one of many that takes so much from its victims. Stem cell treatments could change that.
Both an Emory School of Law graduate and MBA graduate of Goizueta Business School at Emory, Chris Nace focuses his practice on areas of medical malpractice, drug and product liability, motor vehicle accidents, wrongful death, employment discrimination and other negligence and personal injury matters.