07 November 2011

Stem Cell Breakthrough for Parkinson's Disease Treatment

In a major breakthrough, US researchers have grown brain cells from human embryonic stem cells. This discovery is a major step in the treatment of Parkinson's disease.

Dr. Lorenz Studer of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York together with his colleagues published their work in the journal Nature this November.

Grafting the grown brain cells into monkey's brains, tests showed that the cells survived in the animals and reversed the movement problems caused by Parkinson's in the monkeys. This latest medical breakthrough is another sign that embryonic stem cells can very well be the definitive cure for a lot of degenerative diseases. Stem cell research has been mired in controversy on the onset based on moral grounds. Some groups have decried using embryonic stem cells due to its nature and the method on how its procured.

Dr. Studer found the specific chemical signals needed to nudge stem cells into the right kind of dopamine-producing brain cells. Previously, scientists could not pinpoint the right chemical signals needed to tell the stem cells how to form into the right type of cells. "The cells we produced in the past would produce some dopamine but in fact were not quite the right type of cell, so there were limited improvements in the animals. Now we know how to do it right, which is promising for future clinical use." said Dr. Studer.

Video: Embryonic Stem Cells. Very informative and highly recommended

Parkinson's disease happens when brain cells that produce dopamine die off causing tremors, slow movement, and rigidity in people. It usually affects people over the age of 50. Patients with Parkinson's also experience escalating symptoms of tiredness, pain, depression, and constipation as the disease progresses.

This discovery opens the prospect of infusing freshly grown dopamine-producing cells into the patient's brain to treat the disease.

Presently, the main treatments for Parkinson's disease are drugs that control the symptoms by increasing dopamine levels that reach the brain. This stimulates the area of the brain where dopamine works. Some patients have wires surgically implanted into their brains for the electrical pulses to flow freely mitigating movement problems.

Aside from Parkinson's Disease, scientists are also looking at embryonic stem cell treatment for Alzheimer's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). They have been having problems in successfully creating the cells required. As of now, there are still safety concerns regarding this procedure as there is a fear that dopamine neurons developed from human stem cells can trigger the growth of tumours. Human clinical trials have yet to start.

Dr Studer said: "We now have the right cells, but to put them into humans requires them to be produced in a specialised facility rather than a laboratory, for safety reasons. We have removed the main biological bottleneck and now it's an engineering problem."

Last month, scientists have successfully cloned a human embryo which may open up the possibility of harvesting embryonic stem cells for clinical use.