A Disease That Is Not Lou Gehrig's Alone

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Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (A.L.S.), a fatal neurodegenerative disease for which there is no effective treatment, is something of an orphan disease in America despite the approximately 5,600 cases that are diagnosed each year. But A.L.S., also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, has been garnering some long-overdue attention lately. Project A.L.S., a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding A.L.S. research and increasing public awareness of the disease, staged a high-profile benefit on Monday to kick off their educational exhibit "The Future Is Now," which focuses on A.L.S. research and treatments, as well as the possible utility of embryonic stem cells (ESC) in someday conquering this dreaded disease.

Why stem cells? Because experts agree that A.L.S. is one of the conditions that could very likely benefit from treatments derived from embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). Such research has faced considerable controversy in the U.S. because a technique to harvest stem cells without destroying early-stage human embryos has not yet been developed. Currently, ESC must be harvested from blastocysts, tiny balls of cells that develop in the first days after an egg has been fertilized. Recently, an experimental technique has been investigated that would allow researchers to remove a single cell from the blastocyst, which could then still be implanted, however this process is in the early stage of research and big questions remain regarding its efficacy and safety.

A.L.S. destroys motor neurons, a type of nerve cell in the brain and spinal cord that is responsible for sending messages to the muscles throughout the body. When these cells are affected by A.L.S., victims experience muscle weakness caused by atrophy and wasting, followed by paralysis and eventually death. Embryonic stem cell therapies have great potential to treat this condition because they are "pluripotent," meaning they have the potential to develop into virtually any type of cell, including replacement motor neurons for patients. Scientists believe that if this type of therapy were perfected for A.L.S., treatments for Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease would soon follow. Many scientists remain skeptical about the potential of adult stem cells to serve the same purpose given that even at a more advanced stage of technological development they show limited potential for developing into nerve tissue compared to ESC.

Educational efforts like Project A.L.S. are crucial because it is likely that some of the "moral" opposition to ESCR has its origins in misconceptions about the processes by which stem cells are obtained, which at first glance can seem frighteningly Franken-scientific. However, we in the science and medical communities are partially to blame for this. Indeed, one in five Americans believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth according to a recent poll, so how can we fault them for not understanding the nuances of different stem cell research techniques? People must be given the tools to understand this complex science before they can make a decision about whether they believe it is morally acceptable. Although there are some who will never be persuaded to see the value of ESCR, educational efforts -- regarding, for instance, the vast differences between blastocysts and fetuses or the wide gulf between the potential of adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells given current technology -- may help persuade the "swing voters" of the need for public support for ECSR.

Mara Burney is a research associate at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).