Experimental Parkinson’s treatment draws ethics scrutiny with wealthy donor selected as first patient

parkinsonssyringegreen illustration mollyferguson
Credit: Molly Ferguson

A secretive experiment revealed [May 12], in which neurosurgeons transplanted brain cells into a patient with Parkinson’s disease, made medical history. It was the first time such “reprogrammed” cells, produced from stem cells that had been created in the lab from the man’s own skin cells, had been used to try to treat the degenerative brain disease. But it was also a bioethics iceberg, with some issues in plain sight and many more lurking.

In 2013, the soon-to-be patient, George Lopez, gave $2 million to underwrite research on cells in lab dishes and rats that was required to show that the surgery might be safe and possibly even effective.  

Related article:  When coronavirus patients don't have time to wait: Pandemic forces ethical shift in assessing treatments

The problem here isn’t that Lopez received a transplant that thousands of other Parkinson’s patients wish they could try, but that a massive research effort was launched on his behalf because he paid for it. “In my opinion we have an obligation to make sure that scarce resources, such as scientists themselves, are directed toward the greatest possible good,” [bioethicist Jonathan] Kimmelman said. “If a model like this takes hold — and it’s not hard to imagine — then academic medical centers might move their research to where the money is, not where the greatest scientific promise and medical need are.”

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