World-First Trials Have Been Launched to Treat Parkinson's

Stem cells could be used to treat blindness and Parkinson’s Disease.

In China, two ground-breaking studies are investigating the use of embryonic stem cells in the fight against blindness and Parkinson’s disease.

In the city of Zhengzhou, China, pioneering researchers will inject stem cells from human embryos into the brains of Parkinson’s patients in an attempt to reverse and treat the symptoms of this debilitating disease. Another study in the same city will attempt to harness embryonic stem cells to regenerate cells in the retina, improving lost or impaired vision. Both studies come in the wake of an overhaul of rules surrounding stem cell research in China.  

Stem cell research

The use of embryonic stem cells has been a hugely controversial area of science for several years. Many religious and political leaders have expressed concern over the point that life can be said to begin and the implications of utilising human embryos for research purposes. Stem cells, however, offer a unique opportunity for scientists, providing flexible human cells that can be tailored to a wide range of specialist functions in the body.

Stem cells and Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is caused by a deterioration of the tissue around the basal ganglia in the brain. The loss of nerve cells in this area causes deterioration in the function of neurotransmitters and a subsequent drop in dopamine levels and muscle control. It is thought that embryonic stem cells could be used to regenerate nerve cells and effectively treat the debilitating disease.

Similar research has been carried out with promising results in Australia, although this study utilised human egg cells which had been forced to divide without fertilisation. This methodology overcame ethical concerns about embryonic stem cell research.

Stem cells and Sight

For those suffering from macular deterioration, light transmitting cells around the retina die causing a gradual loss of sight. Embryonic stem cells could theoretically be used to regenerate and replace these missing cells causing an improvement or return in sight.

Scientific opinion

The scientific community remains divided over the use of stem cells as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease or macular deterioration, and not just on ethical grounds.

Stem cell biologist, Jeanne Loring of Scripps Research Institute, California is concerned that the types of cells used in the Parkinson’s trial are not specialised enough. She raises concerns that the precursor cells introduced could turn into other types of neuron, telling Nature, “Not knowing what the cells will become is troubling.”

Qi Zhou, the stem cell specialist leading both trials is, however, more optimistic and when talking to Nature, cited successful results in animal trials. He went on to say “We have all the imaging data, behavioural data and molecular data to support efficacy.”

Both studies come after major overhauls in embryonic stem cell research rules in China, where ethical guidelines have been tightened.

The scientific community continues to watch the development of this research with interest. Positive results could not only change the face of embryonic stem cell research but also provide hope in the treatment of two devastating diseases.