Parkinson’s disease

Aug 2015

Dr. Brian Goldman

More than politics: why health – and stem cells – should be an election issue

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Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC Radio’s weekly medical show White Coat, Black Art, wants to know why health care has fallen off the discussion table in this year’s federal election.…

Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC Radio’s weekly medical show White Coat, Black Art, wants to know why health care has fallen off the discussion table in this year’s federal election.

In his blog, he points to the Maclean’s magazine “Federal Issues 2015” rundown of what the federal parties are talking about during the election and notes the following:

“Terrorism made the list. So did defence spending. Jobs, crime, climate. No problem. Heath care? Nada.”

Dr. Goldman, an emergency room physician when he’s not broadcasting his view-from-the-front-lines show on the state of health care, wants to know why party leaders aren’t talking about our struggling health care system and what they might do to fix it.

We agree. Our Foundation has been actively advocating for the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan — a private-sector led plan to deliver up to 10 new curative therapies within 10 years. The Plan aligns the key players — scientists, doctors, industry experts, health charity leaders and philanthropists — to follow through on the promise of stem cells to come up with cures that have baffled medical science for centuries.  You can watch a short video of what scientists doing the research hope to do here.

Health — and stem cells’ role in health care — should be a major election issue.  Health is always top of mind for all Canadians. In early 2014, Abacus Data reported that health care was the number one issue for Canadian voters — well ahead of taxes and job creation. Just last Christmas, the Toronto Star’s political columnist Susan Delacourt predicted that health care would be one of two sleeper issues of the 2015 election campaign:

“…rather than ask the pundits for their predictions about the ballot-box issue for the 2015 election, maybe we should be asking what was on the minds of people around the holiday dinner table this week (besides seconds or desserts). My bet? Health care and seniors’ issues. If Canadian families are not already grappling with health-care concerns at this immediate moment, many are expecting to be juggling matters related to senior care, especially as the population ages.”

So where did health go as an election issue?

Stuff happened. When the price of a barrel of crude oil drops from $107 US to hovering just above $40, it tends to grab the attention of everyone living in a country with a resource-based economy. Canada has also suffered two deadly acts of terrorism this past year, heightening our fears about security in a troubled world. And now the Mike Duffy trial has replaced the weather as the topic du jour at backyard barbecues.

It’s a shame, because our health is absolutely paramount to everything in life. It is a rare Canadian family without someone — an elderly parent, a partner, a child, a niece or nephew — who is struggling with a debilitating, chronic health condition.

Stem cells were discovered in Canada and Canadian researchers are on the verge of delivering stem cell cures for devastating conditions like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, MS & Parkinson’s. We need the Action Plan to make it happen right here, right now. Beyond saving lives, it would also ease the strain on health care — and boost the economy.

We are calling on the Government of Canada and all political parties to commit to contributing just one-third of the investments, about $50 million annually over 10 years.  You can find out everything about the Action Plan here. Then you can call on your local federal politician to support the Action Plan.

Because this is not just a political issue.  It’s more than an election issue.

It’s a life and death reality that touches us all.

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Aug 2015
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Dr. Ivar Mendez

A stem cell solution to Parkinson’s?

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Parkinson’s, is not a kind disease. As dopamine-generating cells in their brains deteriorate, patients must deal with tremors; their feet may suddenly seem to freeze to the floor; they may have difficulty swallowing.  …

Parkinson’s, is not a kind disease. As dopamine-generating cells in their brains deteriorate, patients must deal with tremors; their feet may suddenly seem to freeze to the floor; they may have difficulty swallowing.  Walking becomes a stiff-limbed shuffle.

While drugs such as levodopa and dopamine agonists have greatly enhanced quality of life for Parkinson’s patients, their effectiveness diminishes over time. Deep brain stimulation has also proved helpful, but it does not slow the pace of neurodegeneration.

Stem cell transplants, however, may offer a longer-lasting solution.

“I think Parkinson’s is going to be the first neurological condition where stem cell therapy will be used widely,” says Dr. Ivar Mendez, Unified Head of the Department of Surgery at the University of Saskatchewan.  “We’re looking at transplanting one cell type. So we can direct the stem cells to become that type of cell — a Group A9 dopaminergic neuron.”

Transplanting cells into the brains of Parkinson’s patients in the hope of restoring dopamine neurotransmission is nothing new: it’s been going on for more than 25 years.  The results, according to a 2013 report in The Lancet, “have been variable and, thus, the merits of this approach have been both questioned and championed.”

The variation in results has been attributed to, among other things, the use of different strategies or protocols for transplanting the cells.  A key Canadian contribution to solving that problem is the Halifax Protocol for injecting cells into the human brain. Developed by Dr. Mendez, who was then at Dalhousie University, in collaboration with researchers from Toronto, Montreal and Calgary, the Halifax Protocol is regarded as the gold standard for effective brain repair using cell implantation.

“We developed the methodology for clinical transplantation,” says Dr. Mendez.  “When reviewers looked at all the grafts of all the patients who have been transplanted across the world, it was felt that ours did the best, in large part because of the methodology we developed.”

Dr. Mendez is working with fellow Parkinson’s stem cell pioneer Dr. Ole Isacson of Harvard to use induced pluripotent stem cells created from skin tissue to make dopamine-generating cells that, once transplanted, will integrate into the brain circuitry and restore motor function.

The process is autologous, meaning the stem cells come from the patient themselves, so no immunosuppression therapy is required. As well, researchers have come up with ways to generate the millions of cells required and have developed processes to make those cells robust enough to do the job.  So far, tests with large animals have shown positive results.

“We are continuing to work with animal models until we’re ready to start on a clinical trial, which should go ahead probably in the next two to three years,” says Dr. Mendez. “But I’m always concerned not to build unnecessary expectations among people affected by the disease.”

Other research centres are also working on a stem cell solution to Parkinson’s, with clinical trials using fetal cells currently underway in the United Kingdom.

“We’re very enthusiastic,” says Dr. Mendez. “Resolving the issue on a long-term basis, that is really the attraction. If one cell deteriorates or degenerates with time, can we actually replace that cell and reconstruct the circuitry? If we can, it’s a one-shot procedure. You do it only once and then the transplant will integrate into the host.”

Such a solution, however, could still be many years away.  Researchers need to be sure the cells they inject will do the intended job, without causing additional problems or perhaps generating tumours.

“We’re quite advanced in terms of realistically looking at a clinical trial,” says Dr. Mendez. “But we have to make sure that the preclinical scientific evidence is solid to ensure success”

[Find out more about stem cells and Parkinson’s here.] 

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