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Stem cell therapy for Parkinson’s Disease: Prospects and problems

April 10, 2013
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Anders Björklund giving his public lecture at the BNA Festival of Neuroscience yesterday. Photo: Mo Costandi

Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that develops over many years, leading to impairments of movement and deficits in mental functioning. It affects around 130,000 people in the UK alone, and an estimated 7-10 million worldwide. There is no cure for Parkinson’s, but drugs can effectively treat the symptoms in many patients, and researchers have been working hard over the past 20 years or so to develop stem cell treatments for it.

Anders Björklund of Lund University in Sweden, one of pioneers of using stem cells to treat Parkinson’s Disease, discussed progress in this approach, and the challenges it raises, in a public lecture at the BNA Festival of Neuroscience yesterday.

Parkinson’s is caused by the degeneration of dopamine-producing neurons in the midbrain. These cells regulate movement, and their death leads to the tremors, muscle rigidity and bradykinesia (or slowness of movement) that are characteristic of the disease.

“The challenge is to use stem cells to replace these neurons,” Björklund said. “This will take some time, as we have to understand the biology of stem cells, and what guides repair in the brain.”

The idea is to use stem cells to replace those neurons, and this can be done using several different approaches. One is to dissect the precursors of dopamine-producing neurons from aborted foetuses, and then graft them into the brains of Parkinson’s patients. Upon transplantation, these cells begin to integrate themselves into the existing circuitry, forming connections with other cells.

Various studies show that transplanted cells can survive for many years, and can lead to significant improvement in symptoms. The results are highly variable, however, and some patients benefit from the treatment far more than others. It can be difficult getting enough source material, as between 6-10 donor fetuses are needed for each transplant, and the use of foetal tissue also raises ethical concerns.

One solution is to use induced pluripotent stem cells, which can be generated in large numbers and then reprogrammed into dopamine-producing neurons for transplantation. Typically, it takes about 50 days to generate dopamine-producing neurons in this way. We now know, however, that the cells can be transplanted at an earlier stage and that they continue to mature to form mature dopamine-producing neurons after being grafted into the brain.

Dopamine-producing neurons can now be generated from human embryonic stem cells, too, and these have been shown to significantly improve movement deficits when grafted into the brains of rats with symptoms resembling Parkinson’s. One problem with this approach is that the grafts can become contaminated with dividing cells, and consequently, some of the animals that receive grafts go on to develop tumours.

One of the immediate challenges is, therefore, to make sure the cells are safe and totally free of tumour-forming cells. Another is to identify the best type of cell to transplant – it’s still not clear if embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, or progenitors of dopamine-producing cells are the most effective.

Björklund and other researchers in the field are now trying to make the process of embryonic stem cell differentiation process as efficient as possible, and are further exploring how to reprogram fibroblasts – a type of connective tissue cell found in skin – directly into dopamine-producing neurons.

“The latest clinical trials involve patients at the very early stages of the disease,” says Björklund, “and we think that cell transplants are likely to have a very big impact in these patients.”

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2013 7:25 pm

    Why do scientists always go for the stem cell research that will take years to complete, like embryonic, fetal or pluripotent? Is it because this will ensure years of research grant money, and then patent royalties? All of these approaches involve man’s manipulation, Why isn’t the simple solution of using autologous (your own) adult stem cells investigated first? Your own cells already know how to differentiate into needed cell types, the do it every day! For serious diseases, you just need a bigger dose, accomplished with cultured expansion in the lab. This is already being used around the world with exciting recovery results for many diseases. I know, because I had such therapy 1 year ago in Houston Texas, now finally experiencing sustained recovery after 18 years of MS. Before you dismiss me as a lone anecdote, 233 other patients were also treated, under the Celltex IRB monitored trial, so these results will be published in 2014.

    Another example is Pastor Cho, who leads the largest church in S. Korea. At 73 he was bed ridden and paralyzed, non-verbal from Parkinson’s. He had his own adipose derived mesenchymal stem cells delivered via IV monthly for 1 year, and was able to resume a normal life and give sermons again. Less severe cases of Parkinson’s respond with this level of recovery to the 600 million dose. Here he is speaking about his recovery

    • Farooq Ibrahem Mohammad permalink
      April 17, 2013 11:18 am

      We are doing the same thing growing the patients own cells then back it to patients in high number so it could help to regenerate the defect or support growth factors needed to activate cells we got a very good results with simple facility and cheap in Iraq

  2. Deborah Jeffries permalink
    May 22, 2013 8:40 pm

    Does anyone think this is a real hope for Parkinson’s patients? I am a 45 year old woman who had the disease since I was 36 and was diagnosed in March of 2013. My condition is progressively worsening even though I must say Mirapex helps the main motor symptoms. I still have major problems with balance and “freezing”. I think we all who have this horrible disease are desperate for something, ANYTHING that can slow down the progression rather than treat symptoms for a short period of five to ten years. A cure I don’t think is possible but slowing it down would be such a godsend for me as I’m sure others who are afflicted would agree.

  3. July 17, 2013 3:49 pm

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  4. August 31, 2014 9:02 pm

    Nice to see your valuable post, To get proper treatment for spinal cord injury by stem cells and its very easy to get cured through the support of therapy.

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