Why you should care
Because a blockbuster cure for Parkinson’s could have beautiful ripples.
Lorenz Studer fell in love with his wife on a lab floor, while they counted how many times their Parkinson’s-plagued rats turned around in circles. His boss was too cheap to invest in an automated counting system, so instead he and Viviane tracked manually. So began Studer’s personal and professional life.
Today, 49-year-old Studer is inching toward a potential cure for Parkinson’s disease — a debilitating nervous system disorder that causes increasingly severe tremors and, eventually, the inability to control movement — with a radical approach. Instead of simply trying to fix faulty dopamine cells (part of what causes Parkinson’s), he wants to replace them altogether, using lab-grown stem cells. He’s won a MacArthur Genius Grant — a cool $625,000 cash prize — and, aside from genius, fellow researchers describe him as “top notch” and “the gold standard.” Dr. Oren Levy, a neurologist focusing on movement disorders like Parkinson’s, calls Studer’s work “phenomenal and groundbreaking,” saying he’s the “clear leader” in transforming stem cells into treatments.
He trains cells like dogs into acting differently.
Studer, who runs his own lab at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Center, explains his complex work simply: He trains cells like dogs into acting differently. The trick: He uses “pluripotent” cells — which can assimilate into any part of your body — and turns them into 50 different types of cells. For now, he’s just playing with rats and monkeys; human trials for treating Parkinson’s are set for 2017. Studer’s already considering other tricks for his pet cells, like regrowing intestines for children who eat out of IV tubes. And that’s just a start: Studer’s manipulating time itself — by taking a cell from a 99-year-old and turning its clock all the way back to the embryonic stage. It’s game-changing. Say Alzheimer’s runs in your family. With his technique, you might take one of your cells and speed up time — the cellular aging process — to see if you’re prone to the disease. As Studer puts it, there’s the potential to have a “mini avatar that kind of runs your life ahead of you.”
With sideswept light hair and sharp gray eyes, Studer has some levity to him; a Swiss family man, he reminisces about the good old days when he used to bring his young daughter into the lab to “feed the cells” (a practice that got the ax thanks to insurance gripes). He jokes about the “moon suit” he wears in his lab, which is filled with a smattering of grad students and post-docs blasting Top 40 hits.
All this belies the life of a medical researcher tackling massive problems, spending long hours in the lab. But on top of the constant troubles of any medical research, Studer faces an additional burden: He’s working with stem cells, which can incite religious and ethical controversy. So Studer — one of the first people to work with fetal tissue, some of the most hot-button stuff — has had to fight political battles for the right to do any of his research. About halfway through his career, during the W. Bush days, he had to carousel through a flurry of meetings with church leaders and politicos as political decisions were made. Luckily, the research survived.
There’s a long history of stem cell treatments for Parkinson’s — as far back as the 1970s. Studer picked up the torch in 1998, and three years later, he and his wife published a paper on stem cell treatments in rats. People originally thought curing Parkinson’s via stem cells “would be easy and fast,” says Parkinson’s researcher, patient and advocate David Higgins; it was even considered “low-hanging fruit.” But the decades have shown it to be much more complex.
As a medical student in Switzerland, Studer (an M.D., Ph.D.) began inquiring about how drugs manipulate the brain, an interest he’d nursed since adolescence. He figured … why not use that power for good? He’s since spent decades working on the same problem, which is “very rare,” says Dr. Christian Spenger, who met Studer in the neurosurgery department at the University of Bern. Spenger likens Studer’s work habits to the scientist’s long-distance running habits.
But being on the bleeding edge of a field has its dangers: Hasty research could threaten the lives of patients, not to mention set back the entire discipline. One is reminded of a cautionary tale that stem cell researchers hold close: 18-year-old Jessie Gelsinger, who died just seven weeks after an experimental gene therapy treatment in 1999. Many say it set researchers back a decade. Even Studer’s biggest champions, like Spenger, warn that replacing dopamine cells involves implanting cells into the brain, a surgical procedure that’s never been done before. Plus, other models for degenerative diseases haven’t successfully translated from animals to humans in the past. There’s always a risk of “immune rejection,” meaning the body might not be quite down with the treatment. And his procedure doesn’t aim to treat symptoms of the disease that have nothing to do with dopamine deficiencies, like memory problems or chronic constipation.
Studer’s well aware of all of this. He tries not to be too optimistic and doesn’t want to overpromise, so he uses the word “cure” like that, in quotes. In any case, he won’t be alone as he powers ahead: His wife, Viviane, will be right by his side in the operating room — she’s the neurosurgeon in charge of implanting cells in his future patients’ brains.