Comedian Sir Billy Connolly plans to offer himself up as a Parkinson's "guinea pig" for stem cell research.
Photo: Sir Billy Connolly/The Independent
Sir Billy Connolly,75, is a Glasgow, Scotland-born comedian who has Parkinson’s disease. He was diagnosed five years ago and says the incurable disease dominates his life. He is no longer able to act or work on his comedy shows.
Sir Connolly states in his book that he has contacted scientists at Harvard University in the United States. At the labs at Harvard, stem cell scientists are at the forefront of worldwide research trying to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. Sir Connolly is offering himself up as a guinea pig to be in on experimental treatments on humans involving engineered stem cells.
Sir Connolly, knighted last year, had a terrible week five years ago. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder, deafness, and prostate cancer. He has successfully been treated with surgery for cancer, but Parkinson’s is still with him.
In his book, Sir Connolly writes, “The thing that I find hardest is coming to grips with the fact that it’s never going to go away.” He goes on, “It’s going to get worse. I try everything. I get massages and do physiotherapy. It helps me and then I get worse again. I have to go and do something else as the disease creeps forward. It seems relentless.”
Sir Connolly’s friend Sir Michael Parkinson met with the comedian recently and revealed that his meeting with Sir Connolly was awkward. Sir Parkinson felt that his old friend did not know who he was. Friends, like Sir Parkinson, feel that Sir Connolly doesn’t recognize close friends anymore. His Parkinson’s disease is stealing his memory and cognitive abilities.
Sir Connolly discussed his Parkinson’s symptoms with Professor Sir Ian Wilmut, the professor who created the famous "Dolly the Sheep". (Dolly was cloned from a cell taken from the mammary gland of a Fin Dorset sheep and an egg taken from a Scottish Blackface sheep. She was born to her Blackface surrogate mom in July of 1996.) In their discussion, Sir Wilmut revealed he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
Sir Wilmut admits that he is a “shadow” of his former self and his left side isn’t the same as the right side anymore. He takes it easy and is learning to cope with the disease. Sir Wilmut has also said that stem cell therapy could be used to cure Parkinson’s and other debilitating diseases.
Stem Cell Therapy
Stem cells divide to produce more cells known as daughter cells. Daughter cells become new cells called self-renewal or specialized cells, and they have specific functions. Some might become blood cells, heart muscle cells or even brain cells. There are no other cells that can form new cell types.
Researchers are excited about stem cells for several reasons.
- They give doctors and research a better understanding how conditions and diseases develop.
- They can be guided into specific cells that are used to repair damaged or diseased tissues. They can also be used in transplants and regenerative medicine.
- These cells can be used for testing the safety and quality of new drugs. As an example, nerve cells designed from stem cells are used to test drugs for a nerve disease.
Stem cells are donated with consent from donors. These stem cells live and grow in special solutions in test tubes in labs.
Researchers are using stem cells to treat degenerative disease like heart failure and some types of cancer and blood-related diseases. Research using stem cells for Parkinson’s disease, or neurological conditions, has proven positive, and there are Parkinson’s patients who have been successfully treated using stem cell therapy.
However, disclaimers state that although many patients have been treated successfully, each patient is different and their reactions to stem cells are different.
Parkinson’s Disease Dementia
The brain changes with Parkinson’s disease and begins in a region of the brain that plays a role in movement. As Parkinson’s brain changes progress and spread they start to affect mental functions including memory, the ability to pay attention, make judgments calls and plan everyday functions.
Brain changes linked to Parkinson’s disease dementia are microscopic deposits that are composed of alpha-synuclein, a protein that's found in the brain but whose function isn’t known. These deposits are called Lewy bodies.
Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease dementia includes a decline in thinking that develops in those with Parkinson’s disease at least a year after a formal diagnosis. Some symptoms include:
- Changes in concentration, judgment, and memory,
- Trouble interpreting visual information,
- Speech that is soft and muffled,
- Delusions and paranoid ideas,
- Anxiety and irritability,
- Sleep disturbances and excessive daytime drowsiness.
There is no treatment to stop or slow down brain cell damage caused by Parkinson’s disease dementia. The current therapies only include treating the symptoms. These treatments can include:
- Cholinesterase inhibitors drugs treat thinking changes in Alzheimer’s. They might help Parkinson’s disease dementia as well.
- Antipsychotic drugs can be used for the behavioral symptoms that occur in Alzheimer’s, but they may cause side effects in almost 50% of those with Parkinson’s disease dementia. Side effects could be impaired swallowing, acute confusion, and worsening of Parkinson’s symptoms.
- L-dopa is often prescribed for the movement symptoms of Parkinson’s. L-dopa however, can aggravate hallucinations and confusion in those with Parkinson’s dementia.
- Antidepressant can help for depressions in those with Parkinson’s disease dementia.
- Clonazepam can be prescribed to treat sleep disorders.
Dementia destroys brain cells, and Parkinson’s disease dementia will only get worse over time. The speed of progression varies, but it is inevitable. Hope for those with Parkinson’s is finding a treatment like stem cell therapy that will ultimately prove to be somewhat successful. Sir Billy Connolly has the right idea of offering himself up to Parkinson’s disease dementia testing using stem cells. He might be part of a success story in the next few years.