Michael J. Fox drives stem cell research efforts for Parkinson’s disease back to the future

He’s not climbing into his DeLorean and punching in a destination far into the past, but actor and Parkinson’s disease advocate Michael J. Fox surprised many recently when he told ABC News reporter Diane Sawyer that stem cell research may not be the future of treatments or a cure for this debilitating disease.

Amy Swinderman
He's not climbing into his DeLorean and punching in adestination far into the past, but actor and Parkinson's disease advocateMichael J. Fox surprised many recently when he told ABC News reporter DianeSawyer that stem cell research may not be the future of treatments or a curefor this debilitating disease.
 
 
Since Fox announced his personal battle with Parkinson's andsubsequently launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research(MJFF) in 2000, much of the organization's funding and awareness campaigns havefocused on the pursuit of stem cell research to yield therapies or even curesfor Parkinson's disease.
 
In particular, during the mid-2000s, when President GeorgeBush's executive order restricting federal funding for stem cell research put alot of lab work using human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) on the shelf, Fox andthe MJFF were outspoken in their belief in "the scientific freedom to pursueall promising paths to finding these treatments."
 
 
As the controversial Sherleyv. Sebelius case was brought forward to challenge President Barack Obama's2009 executive order that lifted the Bush restrictions, Fox commented, "As aperson with Parkinson's, it's hugely frustrating to think that one decision canactively hold back research that holds promise to transform lives. Patientswith neurodegenerative diseases dream of the day when disease-modifyingtreatments are found, instead of therapies that simply mask symptoms.Disease-modifying therapies create the possibility of newly diagnosed patientsnever having to experience full-blown disease."
 
But now, Fox seems to be changing focus, as he recently toldSawyer, "Stem cells are an avenue of research that we've pursued and continueto pursue, but it's part of a broad portfolio of things that we look at. Therehave been some issues with stem cells, some problems along the way."Historically, hESCs cells have shown promise for treating Parkinson's in aPetri dish, but they have not yet been effective once transplanted into aliving organism. In other studies, lab rats treated with hESCs have developedtumors or other problems.
 
Fox's comments, while surprising to some, are reallysuggestive of the current state of stem cell research—which, while fascinatingin its possibilities, is still very much an area of research that is still inits infancy. Make no mistake, the MJFF is not turning its back on stem cellresearch, but simply choosing not to put all of its eggs into one Petri dish.
Put in film industry terms, it's not so much a rewind onParkinson's disease research, but perhaps a reboot. Fox notes that he hasn'ttotally abandoned his hope that stem cell research may yield treatments forParkinson's.
 
 
"An answer may come from stem cell research, but it's morethan likely to come from another area," he told Sawyer. 
 
For now, the MJFF is focusing its efforts on pairingpatients with clinical trials that are recruiting in their localities, achallenge that seems to be significantly inhibiting clinical progress. Theonline initiative, which the MJFF is calling the Fox Trial Finder(www.foxtrialfinder.org), matches up patients with research scientistsconducting clinical trials. Currently, about 200 trials are seeking recruitsthrough the website.
 
It's Fox's hope that this service will improve clinicaltrial recruitment enough to bring the pursuit of Parkinson's biomarkers—"whichis really important," Fox says—to the forefront of Parkinson's researchefforts.
 
 
In the meantime, you can catch up to speed on the latestdevelopments in the Sherley case onpage 21, and in our upcoming July and August issues, we'll take an in-depthlook at two advancing areas of stem cell research: epigenetics and regenerativemedicine.

Amy Swinderman

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