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29 May 2007

A belief in science

Icki Iqbal, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and gives his point of view on why embryonic stem cell

By Icki Iqbal

I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years ago. Parkinson’s is a progressive, neurological condition, which is currently incurable although it can be managed well with medication. Being a laid back person, I took this diagnosis in my stride, but my wife was absolutely devastated at first. We’ve both had to come to terms with it in our own ways pretty quickly though, we know how important it is for me to keep physically and mentally active to keep living as normal a life as possible, for as long as possible.

My diagnosis came after I went to my GP with two unconnected problems, I had a tremor down my right side (which is the symptom most people will associate with Parkinson’s), and my voice was becoming increasingly inaudible. I was referred to a neurologist who diagnosed Parkinson’s and told me the speech problem was connected to that.

Having Parkinson’s influenced my decision to retire from full-time employment, but it’s the little things that have made the biggest difference really.

I’ve been to language therapy classes, which have been a big help, but my voice often still lacks volume, which can cause problems socially and in business meetings. I have less power in my legs so my driving speed is slower. And Parkinson’s affects the fine motor skills, so everything I do, from doing up a button, to putting on a seat belt, takes longer than it used to.

However there is no reason why early Parkinson’s should deter you from leading an active life. I am a non-executive director of a pension fund, Governor of a school. I am also involved in a couple of start up insurance operations and am writing a novel. Staying mentally active has been easy; ensuring adequate exercise has been harder.

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My Parkinson’s symptoms are managed by drugs at the moment, and this is very effective – I’m lucky that my symptoms haven’t progressed too far yet. But of course I would like there to be a cure, to know that I don’t have to live with this condition for the rest of my life.

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I got involved with the Parkinson’s Disease Society’s Research Network earlier this year because I wanted to find out more about research in Parkinson’s – there’s so much research being done, both in terms of long-term treatments and cures, as well as things that are going to help people live better in the short term.

I’m a great believer in science and I do believe that scientists will eventually discover what causes Parkinson’s and how to prevent it; it’s just a matter of time.

Stem cell research is one area of science that has attracted a lot of interest in recent years, and the reports that have come back so far are quite exciting. Stem cells are unspecialised cells that have the ability to develop into different types of cells, such as nerve, brain, blood, skin, etc. Because they are so versatile, scientists hope that they can be used to repair and renew cells in the brain lost in neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s.

There are several different ways to get stem cells that can be used for this kind of medical research, including, from early embryos, from blood cells taken from umbilical cords at birth, and from bone marrow. Embryonic stem cells are the most effective for research purposes. Because of this, and the shortage of alternatives, these cells are the ones Parkinson’s research is concentrating on.

I know there are ethical arguments against the use of embryonic stem cells and I do sympathise with pro-life campaigners, but there is no loss of life involved here. Without using embryonic stem cells, there simply wouldn’t be enough stem cells available for this research. And without this research the hope of a cure for Parkinson’s in my lifetime would look increasingly distant. If this kind of research helps discover preventative cures for conditions like Parkinson’s, then it should be encouraged.

There are many different avenues of research being pursued at the moment and I believe it’s important that the current systematic approach is continued to allow the 120,000 people with Parkinson’s in the UK, including myself, to continue to hope.