Brains at Work Against Parkinson's Disease
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Not only did the cell injections produce no average improvement in the functioning of the patients, but four patients who received the treatment developed "severe and disabling" movement disorders, according to neurologist Paul Greene, MD, one of the trial's scientists.
As Greene showed haunting videos of these patients, he said he wasn't sure what prompted the new disorders. But he said he was cheered that the fetal cells do appear to be surviving in patients' brains -- and producing dopamine. "The outcome might be different with other techniques" of fetal cell injection, he said.
Creating a reliable therapy will take lots of hard work, but some are optimistic.
"This is a very crude technology at present, but in the next five years it will be totally different," Ole Isacson, DrMedSci, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, tells WebMD.
There is also lots of talk of stem cells, the 'baby' cells in the body that are capable of turning into any specialized type of cell. Researchers have been able to encourage stem cells to multiply and specialize into various functions. Scientists say the most promising avenue is research with cells from discarded human embryos, but President George W. Bush has put federal funding for fetal stem cell research in limbo.
For late-stage Parkinson's, there's also plenty of attention on deep brain stimulation, which involves implanting electrodes into the brain. According to Isacson, "It's reasonable, but not optimal," and likely less effective than cell transplant.
Greene notes that two patients from his fetal cell trial have received deep brain stimulation with no benefit but that another patient is improving under the therapy.
Unlocking the disease is going to take dollars. "The only way we're going to make any progress is through research. There are a lot of good ideas. The thing that we are short on is time and money," Schneider tells WebMD. "We can't do anything about time, but we can do something about money."