Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Supporting hESCR for Parkinson's: At the Fox Foundation, Not So Much

The German drug discovery and development company Evotec recently issued a press release announcing a grant to develop drugs to treat Parkinson’s.

Nothing unusual about that – medical research and development companies routinely issue press releases upon receiving a major grant. 

But what made this press release stand out was that the grant was awarded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF), for research using non-embryonic stem cells.

Evotec’s Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Cord Dohrmann says the grant is part of a larger “initiative to address neurodegenerative diseases through highly innovative approaches involving patient-derived stem cells and genetically validated mechanisms.”

“Patient-derived stem cells” – in other words, non-embryonic stem cells.  That MJFF is funding such research is noteworthy, because Michael J. Fox himself has been a leading public proponent of human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) since 1998.  While many Hollywood celebrities advocated for such research, Fox was perhaps second only to the late Christopher Reeve in promoting hESCR.  He testified before Congress on several occasions that hESCR would be the key to finding a cure for Parkinson’s.
Yet non-embryonic stem cell alternatives now account for the majority of research grants awarded by MJFF for stem cell research. 

According to its website, since it launched in 2000, the MJFF has awarded a total of 1,345 research grants.  However, of that total, a mere 66 grants were for stem cell research[1]

Of those 66, 48 directly involved the use of stems cells, either human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) or adult and other non-embryonic stem cells, such as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).[2]

Thirty of the 48 grants, or 62.5%, were for adult, induced pluripotent, or other non-embryonic stem cell research.  Eighteen grants or 37.5% were for embryonic stem cell research. 

Notwithstanding his past congressional testimony enthusiastically endorsing hESC research, Michael J. Fox admitted that “other avenues of research have grown and multiplied and have become as much or more promising…an answer may come from [human embryonic] stem cell research but it’s more likely to come from another area.”

As the majority of grants awarded by the Michel J. Fox Foundation shows, those “other avenues” of research may not even involve stem cells, whether adult or non-embryonic. 

But the grants that the MJFF has awarded to stem cell research show a clear preference for non-embryonic stem cell projects – an indication of their greater potential for addressing Parkinson’s than the once highly touted hESCs. 

[1] The result using the search engine on the Funded Grants page to search the term “stem cell.”
[2] Fourteen of the grants did not actually use human stem cells, either embryonic or non-embryonic, or were for research using animal models, which virtually all agree is ethically non-contentious.   The remaining four grants utilized cells derived from fetal tissue which makes them adult, not embryonic stem cells. But because such tissue is harvested from aborted fetuses, research utilizing it carries the same ethical baggage as hESC research which, of course, requires the destruction of human embryos.

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