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Michael J. Fox drives stem cell research efforts for Parkinsonís disease back to the future
June 2012
by Amy Swinderman  |  Email the author
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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.  
 
Since Fox announced his personal battle with Parkinson's and subsequently launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research (MJFF) in 2000, much of the organization's funding and awareness campaigns have focused on the pursuit of stem cell research to yield therapies or even cures for Parkinson's disease.
 
In particular, during the mid-2000s, when President George Bush's executive order restricting federal funding for stem cell research put a lot of lab work using human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) on the shelf, Fox and the MJFF were outspoken in their belief in "the scientific freedom to pursue all promising paths to finding these treatments."  
 
As the controversial Sherley v. Sebelius case was brought forward to challenge President Barack Obama's 2009 executive order that lifted the Bush restrictions, Fox commented, "As a person with Parkinson's, it's hugely frustrating to think that one decision can actively hold back research that holds promise to transform lives. Patients with neurodegenerative diseases dream of the day when disease-modifying treatments are found, instead of therapies that simply mask symptoms. Disease-modifying therapies create the possibility of newly diagnosed patients never having to experience full-blown disease."
 
But now, Fox seems to be changing focus, as he recently told Sawyer, "Stem cells are an avenue of research that we've pursued and continue to pursue, but it's part of a broad portfolio of things that we look at. There have been some issues with stem cells, some problems along the way." Historically, hESCs cells have shown promise for treating Parkinson's in a Petri dish, but they have not yet been effective once transplanted into a living organism. In other studies, lab rats treated with hESCs have developed tumors or other problems.
 
Fox's comments, while surprising to some, are really suggestive of the current state of stem cell researchówhich, while fascinating in its possibilities, is still very much an area of research that is still in its infancy. Make no mistake, the MJFF is not turning its back on stem cell research, 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 on Parkinson's disease research, but perhaps a reboot. Fox notes that he hasn't totally abandoned his hope that stem cell research may yield treatments for Parkinson's.  
 
"An answer may come from stem cell research, but it's more than likely to come from another area," he told Sawyer.  
 
For now, the MJFF is focusing its efforts on pairing patients with clinical trials that are recruiting in their localities, a challenge that seems to be significantly inhibiting clinical progress. The online initiative, which the MJFF is calling the Fox Trial Finder (www.foxtrialfinder.org), matches up patients with research scientists conducting clinical trials. Currently, about 200 trials are seeking recruits through the website.
 
It's Fox's hope that this service will improve clinical trial recruitment enough to bring the pursuit of Parkinson's biomarkersó"which is really important," Fox saysóto the forefront of Parkinson's research efforts.  
 
In the meantime, you can catch up to speed on the latest developments in the Sherley case on page 21, and in our upcoming July and August issues, we'll take an in-depth look at two advancing areas of stem cell research: epigenetics and regenerative medicine.

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