Potential Parkinson's therapy

Canadian researchers are taking a novel approach in trying to find an effective treatment for Parkinson's disease — and it involves taking advantage of small holes drilled in the skull for another therapeutic procedure.

During surgery to implant electrodes into the brains of Parkinson's patients — an increasingly common procedure known as deep brain stimulation, or DBS — doctors at Western University have been removing a tiny scoop of brain cells from selected patients, then growing them in the lab.

The hope is that regenerative cells contained in the biopsied tissue could one day be reprogrammed as therapeutic agents and reimplanted into a patient's own brain to treat Parkinson's or other neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.

"With further advances, it's possible that these cells could be transformed in the laboratory to yield specific cell types needed for a particular disease, for example, dopamine neurons in Parkinson's disease," said neurosurgeon Dr. Matthew Hebb.

In Parkinson's disease, brain cells that secrete the chemical dopamine are progressively destroyed, leading to tremors and other movement-related symptoms.

In a recently published study of 19 Parkinson's patients who had brain biopsies during DBS surgery, the researchers say they were able to grow millions of patient-specific cells, which would not be rejected by the body's immune system if reimplanted.

While most of the cells eventually stop dividing and die, "what takes over is this population of cells that has a very good regenerative capacity," Hebb, who led the study, said Wednesday from London, Ont.

"It looks like they're a type of progenitor cell, but they have a very complex makeup," he said. "We've grown these cells and they have characteristics of cells that may be potentially manipulated into a particular cell type."

Progenitor cells are early descendants of stem cells. Like stem cells, they can give rise to different types of cells, but unlike their ancestors, they cannot divide and reproduce indefinitely.

The cells grown by Hebb's team express proteins, called neurotrophic factors, that protect brain cells. So it's possible they might somehow be recruited to halt the progression of Parkinson's disease by stopping the death of neurons in affected parts of the brain.

The key question to answer, he said, is what is the potential of these cells?

"And I think it's important, especially when we talk about Parkinson's disease and other neurodegenerative conditions, it's important that we don't characterize these cells as growing neurons from patients' brains because we don't have evidence that that's what we've done."

The research team, whose study is the cover story in the October issue of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology journal, has begun studies to test how the human cells function when implanted into the brains of specially bred lab animals.


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