Stem cells and Neurodegenerative diseases: Epistemological and Methodological problems

Francisco Javier Romero and Cristina Rodríguez-Luque

One of the most relevant changes in the way to approach research on neurodegenerative diseases is related to the discovery of the existence of stem cells in the adult nervous tissue. The scientific results and their recent chronological development are a logical consequence of one another. Spanish scientific contributions to this problem are relevant and are also included in the chapter of this new book titled Conceptual Revolutions: From Cognitive Science to Medicine, edited by Wenceslao J. González. The book assumes that history of science has shown us the existence of deep changes in scientific activity. The emphasis is here on the analysis of concepts used by scientists rather than on contextual aspects of scientific research (social, cultural, economic, political, etc.). De facto, this characterization of revolutions in terms of variations in concepts supposes an alternative view to Thomas Kuhn’s approach to scientific revolutions. The configuration of the book underlines two scientific realms — cognitive science and medicine — because of their relevance nowadays for conceptual revolutions. These disciplines receive particular attention in the five sections of the book, which involves ten chapters. The volume starts with the most general topic: conceptual revolutions and complexity. Thereafter, it moves on to specific issues in cognitive science and medicine as well as in new sciences.

Chapter 6 is dedicated specifically to Neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson or Alzheimer which features include in all cases that the functional impairment observed in patients correlates with cell death of specific neurons in specific brain nuclei or areas. Clinical symptoms differ depending on the neurons affected in each individual disease: memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease, motor impairment and Parkinson’s disease, cognitive impairment and senile dementia, etc., but in all cases they are all caused by neuronal death/degeneration. This attracted much attention among researchers and the number of publications devoted to the ‘cell death’ issue notably increased. Parallel to this and somewhat later, the possibility of replacing these dead cells in different parts of the brain with cells capable of restoring the lost function began to be evaluated. Though these transplantation trials faced, from the very beginning, the well known graft-versus-host syndrome, it is worth mentioning the experimental auto-transplantation of dopaminergic neurons into the substantia nigra performed by a Spanish group.
Alternatively, there is interest in the use of embryonic stem cells in this field, but their proliferation control mechanisms are not well known, and therefore progress using these cells has slowed down and in some cases, has stopped.
The discovery of stem cells in the adult brain represented a change of direction in scientific proposals: if adult neurogenesis exists, the real solution would be to modulate their proliferation activity, with all the consequences derived from it and this will be discussed hereafter.
Considering the ethical implications of this issue, on the one hand, the use of stem cells, and on the other, the enormous social impact of these diseases, a mutual influence of the results of scientific publications and the public opinion (considering as a reference the mass media) has to be admitted in Spain. Part of this chapter will be devoted to analyze the influences and correlations of these two. Some classical authors distinguish between what things are and what they seem to be. Berkeley proposed esse est percipi, therefore what counts for different empiricist perspectives is the perception (to be is ‘to be perceived’). This has caused many different problems in the past. If we consider that one thing is the research about neurodegenerative diseases with its epistemological and methodological contexts and another one is their public perception, it is important to take into account both spheres. Because in many instances social factors mean that some lines of research did not attract funding and also affect the public perception of these advances. In 1969, the sociologist Robert K. Merton identified in the scientific community an accumulative dynamic of the allocation of funds, like prices, recognition, and the possibility of publishing in quality journals. He called it “St. Matthew effect”, from the passage of the Gospel that says: “For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” (Matthew, 25, 29). Therefore, those who are in visible positions of prestige will have access to another resources and positions of visibility and so on. This is explained extensively by professor Bucchi in his book Scientisti e antiscientisti. Perché scienza e società non si capiscono.

The aim of this chapter — written by a physician and a scientific journalist — is to analyze the research on neurodegenerative diseases on the basis of a conception of the advancement of science in which social factors might play a considerable role. Scientific knowledge advances, as Thagard mentions in Conceptual Revolutions by changes usually more conceptual than social, it has to be considered also that mass media can influence the advancement of science. From this initial perspective, we aim to analyze the possible correlation between the epistemological and methodological evolution of the research on neurodegenerative diseases and its growing presence the Spanish press associated with the growing presence of stem cell research, like general daily printed press, such as El País and ABC. For this purpose, we compare the data from scientific micromedia — represented in the databases Pubmed and ISI Web of Science — performing searches with appropriate keywords, with the ones obtained from the web databases of ABC and El País, from 1996 to 2006. We analyze their possible correlations to try to distinguish the stages that could be established in both fields, science and mass media, introducing also information about some milestones in the decade in both arenas: research and press, that may influence one another mutually.
The results show the coincidences and disparities between the two areas studied: science and mass media. Assuming the inseparability of both environments, it could be confirmed that they exert mutual influence on each other. It is logical to consider that journalists should be aware of scientific discoveries and quick to inform the public about them. However, in Spain, it is clear that the criteria used to consider what is newsworthy goes in the opposite direction to scientific advancement, prioritizing always embryonic stem cells. Research on the press by means of counting, cataloguing, categorizing and Framing, versus scientific publications data bases clearly demonstrates that the latter have an increasing interest in adult stem cells with special emphasis on those cells of easier access and management, hematopoietic, even for research in neurodegenerative diseases, in view of their plasticity.
Finally, the discovery of the existence of adult neurogenesis in humans is probably the conceptual revolution that will drive the methodological aspects of the research on neurodegenerative diseases in the XXIst century.
It is evident that this change is linked to other discoveries and the subsequent penetration in knowledge of the concepts, such as the mechanisms of cell death (e.g. apoptosis), that tends to take place in health sciences. The new discovery overlaps with former paradigms and we do not know whether the older theories will survive or not.

Romero Gómez, F.J and Rodríguez Luque, C. (2011). “Research on neurodegenerative diseases: Epistemological and Methodological Problems”, p. 119-134 in González, W. (2011). Conceptual Revolutions: From Cognitive Science to Medicine. Netbiblo: La Coruña.

Francisco Javier Romero, M.D., Ph.D. Professor of Physiology at the Universidad Católica de Valencia ‘San Vicente Mártir’ and Head of Research at the Fundación Oftalmológica del Mediterráneo in Valencia (Spain). Studied medicine in Valencia (1976-1982), received doctoral training in Düsseldorf (Germany) and got his Ph.D. degree from the University of Valencia in 1985. Postdoctoral training was performed in Mainz (Germany), Stockholm (Sweden) and Los Angeles (USA). Authors more than 120 peer-reviewed articles and serves as editor for Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics, and as reviewer for more than 35 scientific journals related to physiology, biochemistry and neuroscience. Has supervised more than 30 Ph.D. thesis.

Cristina Rodríguez Luque. Assistant Professor of Journalism at the Universidad CEU Cardenal Herrera in Valencia (Spain). She has received the prize “Lorenzo Gomis” to the best Ph.D thesis in Journalism by the Spanish Journalistic Society in 2011, with the European thesis “Media Coverage of stem cell research from the perspective of framing. El País and ABC (1996-2006)”, co-supervised by the Professor of Physiology Francisco Javier Romero and the Ph.D. in Journalism Elvira García de Torres. This thesis has been funded with a research grant from the Regional Government of Valencia and with grants from Fundación CEU S. Pablo to be a research visitor at the School of Journalism of Wisconsin Madison (USA), after the supervision of Dr. Dominique Brossard and at the London School of Economics (UK) after the mentorship of Dr. Martin W. Bauer. She nowadays teaches Theory and Techniques of Radio and Scientific Journalism at the Universidad CEU Cardinal Herrera and is the sub-editor of Radio CEU.