Chinese scientists are getting ready to perform two revolutionary stem cell procedures. If all goes well in these two trials, China could instantly become a global leader in stem cell research.
The first trial will attempt to use stem cells to mitigate the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's patients will have stem cells from human embryos directly injected into their brains.
Another research team will use embryonic stem cells (ESC) to help people with retinal cell loss due to macular degeneration. Both of these tests will be performed in the east-central city of Zhengzhou.
While Australian researchers also tested stem cells in the treatment of Parkinson's, they were forced to use cells from eggs rather than from human embryos. As of today, accredited Chinese researchers can use stem cells from human embryos for research purposes.
People with Parkinson's disease have a severe lack of nervous tissue in the basal ganglia region of the brain. Since there's less nervous tissue, the patient has less of the essential neurotransmitter dopamine. The lack of dopamine is the primary reason Parkinson's patients have trouble controlling their muscles. Chinese researchers hope to develop stem cells that can replace this nervous tissue in the Parkinson's patient's brain.
On the other hand, people with macular degeneration experience a huge loss in the tissue known as the retinal pigment epithelium. Damage to this tissue, which is located in the back of the eye, causes severe visual problems and could even lead to blindness.
Chinese researchers believe they can use ESC to rebuild the retinal pigment epithelium naturally. After they've developed the necessary cells in the lab, they will then inject them directly into a patient's eye.
While this research is certainly exciting, not everyone in the stem cell community believes it will be successful. One major critic of this research is Jeanne Loring, a stem cell biologist at California's Scripps Research Institute.
Loring says that the Chinese researchers' decision to use precursor cells rather than ES-cell-derived cells could create serious problems. Since precursor cells can potentially mutate and/or form different neurons, Loring believes it's far better to use ES-cell-derived stem cells that have been conditioned to form dopamine-producing cells. As Loring told an interviewer regarding this Chinese study, "Not knowing what the cells will become is troubling."
Despite Loring's criticisms, the Chinese researchers believe their stem cell procedure will be a success. Qi Zhou, the lead researcher on both projects, says that animal trials of ESC cells over the past few years have shown positive results. Zhou, who teaches at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Zoology, believes his team has enough data to proceed with these stem cell trials.
The first symptom of Parkinson's disease is often an involuntary shaking of the hands that grows into numerous other problems such as stiff muscles, balance issues, and difficulty speaking. The most common treatment methods now used for Parkinson's include physical therapy, dopamine promoters, and anti-tremor medication.
Macular degeneration is a common eye disease in people 60 and above. The first symptom of the disease is often blurred vision, but macular degeneration can be present without noticeable symptoms. Eye doctors can help halt the progression of this disease with laser surgery, certain vitamins, and blood vessel growth inhibitors.
Stem cell researchers from around the world will be watching these trials very closely. If these tests are successful, it could mean huge changes in the stem cell industry and increase China's stature as a world leader in stem cell research.