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The Pope and Parkinsons – (Stem Cells)

Pope John Paul II was, given his condition, incredibly strong. Yet, slowly, Parkinson’s’ disease took its predictable progressive course.

The disease is caused by a loss of nerve cells in an important region of the brain called the substancia nigra, which helps control smooth muscle movements. They produce the brain chemical called dopamine, which is key in coordinated muscle action.

Because the pope’s Parkinson’s disease had progressed so far, he could no longer swallow properly and had to have a tracheotomy to protect his airway and have a feeding tube placed. It is likely that nerve problems in the urinary tract, including the bladder, led to the urine infection that created the blood infection which eventually killed him.

There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s, and right now treatments are adequate but certainly not ideal.

Now, it’s not known why these nerve cells die, but many believe embryonic stem cells can replace them. Parkinson’s is one of the diseases for which embryonic stem cells hold the most promise.

Dr. Pietro Mazzoni, a neurologist and researcher at Columbia University, says, “Stem cells have the potential of being directed to become a certain type of particular cell. So the next frontier in trying to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is to replace Dopamine, not just with the chemical but with the cells that produce it.”

In spite of the fact stem cells are a true potential cure, the pope was against this because these stem cells are typically taken and grown from cells left over from in vitro fertilization, thus cells that could have become a human. The church argues for using adult stem cells–stem cells taken from the blood or bone marrow of living humans. But they’re not exactly the same as embryonic stem cells.

“The embryonic stem cells have much more potential for flexibility. That’s the main difference and the big difference is adult stem cells are much harder to find and attain than the embryonic stage,” says Dr. Mazzoni.

There is a push by several states to allow research using stem cells cloned from human embryos. Last fall, California lawmakers passed a three billion dollar stem cell bond initiative. And late last week, as the pope was nearing death, the state house in Massachusetts overwhelmingly approved a bill that promotes stem cell research.

Stem cell research has the potential to help heart attack patients develop new heart muscle, to provide a cure for diabetes by providing new pancreas cells, and could help spinal cord injury patients and Alzheimer’s patients. Overall, there are more than 100 million Americans who suffer from diseases that may be treated and even cured by stem cells.

It’s a controversy over a potential cure for several diseases, a battle the pope fought, and the church continues to fight… but may lose, as it appears there is a growing momentum for research into the promise of embryonic stem cells.

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