Straight talk on stem cells

Published: June 26, 2004
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Stem cells are in the news. I know that you are working on stem cell research. Tell us a little about your work.

My research work is related to Parkinson’s disease. We have been working on Parkinson’s since 1972 in collaboration with some neurologists, especially Dr. Ron Pfeiffer. Basically, we are interested in the causes and treatment of the disease.

We know that in North Dakota, the incident of Parkinson’s disease is high — in part, because people live longer. Second, Parkinson’s disease is high in agricultural states, and North Dakota is an agricultural state. Third, we have discovered that environmentally induced Parkinsonism, drug-induced Parkinsonism and idiopathic (or unknown origin) Parkinson’s have identical causes, in that when the mitochondria is damaged, the level of ATP goes down, and the brain cannot repair the damage it suffers.

Q. What are mitochondria and ATP?

A. Think of the furnace in your house. If your furnace dies, your house does not get heat. Mitochondria are a source that generates energy for the cell, so when the mitochondria are damaged, the cells die.

We know that mitochondria synthesize a substance we call ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. Therefore neurotoxins, insecticides and herbicides causing Parkinsonism inhibit the synthesis of ATP by damaging the mitochondria.

Q. Some insecticides and herbicides cause Parkinson’s disease?

A. A group of young drug addicts in California were trying to convert meperidine (Demerol) into heroin and accidentally synthesized MPTP, or methylphenyl tetrahydropyridine — a new neurotoxin causing Parkinson’s disease.

When they injected MPTP into themselves, in 24 hours they came down with Parkinson’s disease. When they went to a neurologist, he was surprised because most Parkinson’s patients are elderly people.

It took 10 years to find out that MPTP actually causes Parkinson’s disease by damaging the mitochondria. Damaged mitochondria do ? ?not make ATP, and when a cell does not make ATP, it cannot repair the damage it suffers.

The nerves in the body continuously are bombarded by harmful substances (free radicals) that damage them. ATP has a way of repairing this damage. Fruits and vegetables, by the way, help prevent the harmful effects of free radicals.

What I discovered is that idiopathic Parkinson’s disease, drug-induced Parkinsonism and insecticide-induced Parkinson disease all do work on the same mechanism by damaging the mitochondria and so reducing the level of ATP.

Q. You said Parkinson’s disease is age related. Does that mean as people age, their mitochondria automatically are damaged?

A. As you get older, the mitochondrial functions go down, and so the brain makes less and less ATP. That is one reason our memory fails: The brain cannot repair the damage it suffers.

For a long time, it was believed that Parkinson’s always is a disease of elderly subjects. As a matter of fact, the Pope’s Parkinson’s disease is more likely related to his age. The Vatican did not agree at first that the Pope had Parkinson’s disease, but finally they did. The Pope is at a Stage 4 Parkinson’s, which means it is severe.

But recently, it was shown that Parkinson’s is not a homogenous disorder, which means that it does not have a single cause. Parkinson’s can occur in people as young as 30 to 40.

Q. As Parkinson’s escalates and immobilizes the body, does it affect internal organs such as the heart?

A. No, just skeletal muscle movements. It doesn’t affect internal organs. It is just the Central Nervous System that mostly is affected, although there are abnormalities in the Peripheral systems.

Q. So what do stem cells do?

A. A stem cell can migrate to damaged tissues and rebuild the cells that have died. That is gene therapy. Secondly, if the cells have abnormal genes or a missing gene, the stem cells are able to replace the malfunctioning and dysfunctional cells.

Q. Scientists currently can’t harvest stem cells, right?

A. That is not exactly true, but let me explain why. There are U.S. regulations and National Institutes of Health guidelines for the use of human adult stem cells and fetal tissues.

The federal government will let you use adult stem cells, but they won’t let you use juvenile stem cells. There is a big difference between the two. It is over the fetal stem cell that the major controversy exists. Technically, you could use adult stem cells.

Q. Is that what you are using in your research here at UND?

A. We do not use human stem cells. Some people or some churches believe that you really are killing an individual to save another individual. Instead, we use fetal cells from experimental animals. It is the human fetal stem cell that gets people in difficulty.

Q. Is the fetal stem cell better?

A. Much, much better. It has a greater ability than adult stem cells. It is highly expandable, pluripotent (meaning it can give rise to many types of cells) and has capability of doing a lot of things.

Q. Why is there so much interest in stem cells?

A. Because, for example, you can inject a stem cell into a damaged heart or blood stream, and it will migrate to the area and repair the damage.

Q. How will the stem cell know to go to the damaged part of the heart?

A. Drugs have this ability to convert disease into normal. They don’t do the other way around. For example, if you have fever, you take aspirin, and aspirin reduces your fever. But if you give aspirin to normal people, it doesn’t reduce their body temperature further.

Stem cells have certain molecules that go everywhere but just recognize the area that is damaged and start to heal that area.

In the heart, you would inject it into the ventricle. It would migrate to all areas but repair the areas where the damage exists.

Q. What are you learning in your research at UND?

A. We inject a drug (MPTP) that causes Parkinson’s disease, and the animals exhibit all the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. With the stem cells, we are able to block the toxicity of MPTP. The cells have the ability to prevent the body from developing Parkinson’s and repair it. We use the fetal stem cells obtained from mice.

Q. If you could use fetal stem cells, what kind of benefit would come about?

A. The stem cell is useful to treat Myelin deficiency, Multiple Sclerosis, cerebellar defects, lysosomal storage disease, stroke injury, spinal cord injury, neurodegenerative disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Demyelination disorders and cerebellar degeneration.

As you know, former President Ronald Reagan died of Alzheimer’s disease that he’d had for 10 years. Nancy Reagan supports stem cells technology, while President George Bush is against it.

If this ethnical issue is solved, stem cell technology would become a boon not only to diseases of the central nervous system (such as spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, Parkinson’s and so on), but also diseases of the peripheral nervous systems.

Q. Is there anything else?

A. We are publishing a comprehensive book on Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Ron Pfeiffer, vice chair of the neurology department at the University of Tennessee, and I have edited a book called “Parkinson’s disease,” in which 80 top-notch neurologists and neuroscientists throughout the world have been invited to provide a chapter.

This 1,300-page book will be published in December. Many important discoveries are being made. These items will bring hope and encouragement to patients with Parkinson’s disease throughout the world.

By Dorreen Yellow Bird
Herald Staff Writer