Stem Cells and Neuroscience

As the initiative of my significant other, we attended the public event called – “Stem Cell Treatments, where are we? – A focus on Neurological Disease”.

The title is quite descriptive. The aim was to present the stem cell research to the general public, focussing on the application in the neurological diseases.

I have to say the event was both very well organised and gave me an insight into the aspects of the Neuroscience I am very weak at – applications in health.

The main part of the event were four short panel presentations followed by the Q&A session. The panel members (with their presentation titles) were:

  • Paul de Sousa (University of Edinburgh) – Bridging the Gap Between embryonic stem cell research and the clinic
  • Anna Williams (Centre for Regenerative Medicine) – Current and future opportunities for MS.
  • Keith Muir (Southern General Glasgow) – The current (ReNeuron) stroke trial
  • Sue Polson (patient spokesperson for MSS) – A patients perspective: looking at internet therapy offerings

Two researchers, neural surgeon and an MS (Multiple sclerosis) patient spokesperson were a great group of stakeholder representatives.

Paul de Sousa presented what stem cells actually are and how difficult it is to mass-produce them. Nowadays they do not need to be embryonic, they can induce the pluripotency even in skin cells. You would think this solves the ethic dilemmas (no need for embryos), but in fact it only opens more (very SciFi, probably very unfeasible, but you could build a whole person from a skin cell of one). They are working on the mass production of the pluripotent cells with the longer-term aim of introducing them to clinical work with a company called Rosslin cells.

Anna Williams was focusing on her own research, which is the use of already existent stem cells in our bodies (even when you are adult, you have those cells going about in your body) for treatment of MS (Multiple sclerosis). Generally her point was – we don’t need to only develop invasive treatments, when we insert stem cells in the body, but rather develop treatments which will use existing stem cells in recovery after diseases. She specifically showed how inserting external stem cells into the brain would be futile in the case of MS treatment, as defects are distributed and the locations of defects are changing.

Keith Muir gave a very witty talk. He is a neural surgeon, involved in a study of using stem cells for treatment of patients which suffered brain stroke. Such a stroke can induces severe lesions in the brains of the patients. They are currently conducting safety study. They insert the stem cells in the regions close to the lesions and are hoping this will do no harm. So they are not looking for improvements – they are rather showing how this will not harm the patients. Later they are thinking of the study, which would show how such stem cell insertion would actually improve the lives of the patients, but this one will be very very very difficult to design (getting the ethical approval and the patients for control groups would be very difficult).

Sue Polson spoke form the perspective of the patients. Her main point was the problems current patients have with the slow development of the treatments. Loosely said (and the other panel members sort of agreed with it), the current patients or even out generations will not be able to get cured using the stem cell treatments, this is something for the future. Then again, side-benefits (related treatments) will are emerging also due to the current research. She puts forward the complaint about the slow and too cautious activity of the regulatory bodies. She said patients should be able to risk more to speed-up the research.

Some of the general conclusions that I took from the event:

  • Stem cells are pretty much at the start, probably our generation isn’t really to expect a “real” stem cell treatments.
  • Methods are being developed though. Specially induced pluripotency was a big news.
  • Patients are willing too risk, regulatory bodies are there to protect them from themselves (which can be overdone).
  • There are ways to use the existent stem cells in the body -> we just need to find ways to direct them and stimulate them if needed.
  • Safety studies must be performed before you go to studies looking at the effectiveness of treatments in humans. All this takes years.

The evening ended with wine. That’s normally a sign of a good event. Indeed it was so.

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