20 March 2009

Residents see hope in stem cell work

By Jessica J. Burchard
The Winchester Star


Winchester — The best option for Bonnie Justice’s early-onset Parkinson’s disease may be a two-part brain surgery and a dopamine receptor implant.

On Monday, the 48-year-old from Berryville will travel to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for a consultation.

“Pretty much the only option for me is surgery,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Justice was diagnosed with the disease nine years ago. It has no cure.

While she has few treatment options now, that may change.

On March 9, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to expand guidelines for embryonic stem cell research and provide federal funding.

The order gives federal officials 120 days to issue new guidelines that will make a far wider range of experiments eligible for federal funding.

Meanwhile, Justice continues to take prescription medication daily. The medicine upsets her stomach, though, and does not completely alleviate her symptoms.

Early-onset Parkinson’s is a degenerative neurological disease that causes the neurons in the brain to break down, particularly the dopamine-secreting cells. Dopamine is a neuro-transmitter that sends signals controlling bodily movements.

Symptoms include muscle stiffness and weakness, difficulty swallowing and speaking, and, in some cases, tremors on one side of the body.

Early-onset Parkinson’s is classified as any instance of the disease that is diagnosed in someone under 60.

Promising research

Mariecken Fowler, a neurologist at Winchester Medical Center specializing in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, said no current medical treatment can stop or reverse the damage done by neurological diseases.

“It’s the death of the cells that is causing the problems,” she said.

Fowler said the brain is unable to produce replacement cells for those destroyed, and scar tissue covers the areas damaged by the diseases.

The scar tissue means that patients are unable to regain any of their bodily functions and will continue to deteriorate.

Such a breakdown is common in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, and other neurological disorders.

Fowler and other neurologists are optimistic about the use of embryonic stem cell research to possibly reverse and cure these diseases.

Embryonic stem cells are prized in the scientific community because they can transform into any type of cell in the human body.

If scientists could control the metamorphosis, they might be able to create replacement tissues to treat a variety of diseases and conditions, from diabetes and Parkinson’s to paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries.

Fowler said scientists inject genetic material into the center of embryonic stem cells to dictate what the cells will eventually become. For example, DNA from a spinal cord would create a spinal cord cell.

The cells contain the same DNA as the person who receives them, which means the patient is not in danger of having her body reject the new cells, as can happen with other treatments.

Two sides to the issue

Although Justice considers brain surgery to be the most effective way to cure her Parkinson’s symptoms, she is optimistic about embryonic stem cell research.

“I think it will give a lot of people hope,” she said. “A lot of people have been frustrated by the lack of research being done.”

One such person is Rick Loughborough, who was diagnosed in November with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — by neurologist Paul Lyons at WMC.

“It pains me that we could have been eight years closer to a cure for my disease and others if we had had access to embryonic stem cell research,” he said in a phone interview Thursday from his home in Upperville.

During President George W. Bush’s two terms in office, his administration chose to curtail embryonic stem cell research, which limited federal funding to a small number of stem cell “lines,” or groups, that were obtained and stored before Aug. 9, 2001.

Loughborough, 44, has felt his body yielding to ALS since last summer. He is now unable to walk and uses an electric wheelchair to move around his home.

He can no longer work, and spends most of his time in his home, entertaining guests and watching television.

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. This leads to a failure of the brain to control body movements.

The disease has no cure. People with ALS typically live for three to five years after being diagnosed.

Loughborough said people who have not personally experienced or seen someone with a debilitating neurological disease cannot fully understand the need for embryonic stem cell research.

“I think it’s very hard to have a moral high ground on this or other issues during a crisis situation,” he said. “I think if they’re living with the issue themselves, then they can see both sides of the issue.”

“A human life”

Some people consider research on embryonic stem cells to be a sin.

“I think [the research] demoralizes the people of the United States,” said Pastor Ken H. Smith of the Open Doors Baptist Church in Clear Brook. “We need to understand that the embryo is a human life.”

He and many other religious people say they believe the idea of using cells from a human embryo for scientific research goes against biblical teachings that argue life begins at conception.

Even the thought that embryonic stem cell research might save lives and end suffering does not sway Smith.

“If you have to take a life to save a life, what are you gaining?” he asked. “I don’t think the sacrificing of an unborn [child] is worth the adding of a few years of life for someone else.”

Fowler understands concerns about using embryonic stem cells for research, but takes a more scientific view of the research.

“I understand that there are a lot of definitions of when life begins,” she said. “These balls of cells are from fertility clinics where [the frozen embryos] were going to be destroyed.”

The embryos are left over from in vitro fertilization — a process in a laboratory in which an egg is fertilized by sperm outside of the womb. A woman usually has six to eight of her eggs removed and fertilized, but does not need all of them to become pregnant.

A variety of debates

Shenandoah University philosophy professor Barry Penn Hollar said the source of the embryos should be scrutinized in the stem cell research debate.

“This stem cell discussion raises a lot more discussion than what it looks like,” he said. “It raises issues of parenting, sexuality, and moral limits on how we reproduce.”

Despite the controversy surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research, Justice is optimistic.

“I’m excited at the promise of more research.”

The Associated Press contributed some information for this report.


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