Human Embryonic Stem Cell Therapies Viewed Favorably: Survey

17 Parkinson's patients surveyed in Sweden said issue was 'complex and difficult'

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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An illustration of stem cells.

People with Parkinson’s disease have generally positive attitudes toward using therapies derived from human embryos, according to a new study based on interviews with patients in Sweden.

The study, “Patients’ views on using human embryonic stem cells to treat Parkinson’s disease: an interview study,” was published in BMC Medical Ethics.

Human embryonic stem cells, or hESCs, are cells that are isolated from human embryos within the first week after fertilization. Like other stem cells, hESCs can be induced to grow into other cell types, such as nerve cells. A growing body of research is exploring therapies based on hESCs and other types of stem cells as potential treatments for Parkinson’s.

Since hESCs are derived from fertilized human embryos that can, theoretically, be grown into a fully developed human, their use in research and medicinal purposes raises a number of ethical questions that don’t have simple answers.

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In this study, scientists in Sweden interviewed Parkinson’s patients to learn about their perspectives on hESCs.

“The ambiguity surrounding the status of the embryo has led to controversies without reaching a consensus. Whether, and to what extent, the human embryo has a moral value that deserves protection or not, is repeatedly discussed alongside the medical development,” the researchers wrote.

Previous studies have assessed how couples using assisted reproductive techniques would feel if embryos generated as part of those efforts were used for medicinal purposes, the researchers noted. But the attitudes of patients who would likely benefit from hESC-based treatments hasn’t been investigated to the same degree.

“What patients with [Parkinson’s] think about medical treatment developed from hESC is still unexplored. Since they are significant stakeholders in the moral discussion presented, their views on the matter are arguably of great interest in itself as well as for policymakers and legislators,” the scientists wrote.

hESC therapy a ‘complex and difficult issue’

The researchers interviewed 17 Parkinson’s patients in Sweden. About two-thirds were male (average age, nearly 69) and participants described their religious backgrounds as Christian, Evangelical, nonreligious, or atheistic.

The patients’ opinions were diverse, with many noting that it is “a complex and difficult issue,” the researchers said. Some patients had initial negative reactions, though these were often due to misunderstanding the issue. “Some found it scary initially or became upset, but these reactions subsided when they realized that cryopreserved embryos, and not fetuses, are used,” the researchers wrote, adding by and large the participants responded favorably to hESC for Parkinson’s and expressed interest in the possibility of receiving this type of therapy themselves.

“It is very good that this issue is being discussed because I think it is important that we have some level of agreement, and there are different value systems that lead to different conclusions. But for me, I only see advantages,” one patient said.

The participants generally said that decisions about the ethics and morality of using hESCs should be left up to experts.

“It is up to the researchers to use them in a right way … one has to follow the current legislation. I have no concerns in my conscience regarding this,” one patient said.

The patients also emphasized the importance of ensuring that all embryos were donated willingly, however, and most said donors must consent to their embryos being used in research or medicine.

Some patients said they were concerned women or couples might be exploited, especially those already in vulnerable positions. They said transparency was needed about how these therapies are made and used, and that companies prioritize patients’ health over profits.

The researchers emphasized the study was limited to a few patients in Sweden so the findings “do not present the full picture,” and said more research was needed.