Will Stem Cells Be the Answer?
Well, today we have a new President! And while President Obama has plenty to contend with early on, it's widely expected that one early action he'll take will be to reverse the stem cell funding policy initiated by President Bush in 2001. As I mentioned in my last post, our film chronicles the long contentious debate over federal stem cell funding. But beyond the controversy, where does the science itself stand? Parkinson's is often cited as a principal beneficiary of stem cell science. That's because if stem cells could be nurtured into becoming dopamine producing neurons, they could help make up for the cells that die in Parkinson's. The trick, as Harvard neuroscientist Ole Isacson explained to me when I interviewed him, is to grow just the right cells. It's a complex process that Isacson says is a bit like cultivating just the right seeds for your garden. (To read more about his work, check out this overview of the projects his lab does and this article.)
But one of the things I learned while working on the film is that Parkinson's is complicated. While stem cells may well prove to be a source of dopamine production, there are other symptoms that frequently plague people with PD that can't be easily explained by a neurotransmitter deficiency ... everything from loss of sense of smell to constipation. Bill Langston -- head of the Parkinson's Institute and another voice in our film -- has some useful thoughts on the complexity and what lies ahead in this article.
So as we begin the new Obama era, it's worth remembering that as all of us know, Parkinson's is no easy foe, and the task ahead will be daunting. Yet I also think we can be hopeful -- no matter our politics -- about what science, in ways still unimagined, will bring us in the years ahead.