Stem cell researchers from the United Kingdom are preparing a study to examine the ability of induced pluripotent stem cells iPSCs to improve the condition of patients afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. Oxford University will host the study and this group will take skin cells from Parkinson’s patients, transform them into iPSCs, differentiate these iPSCs into neurons, and then surgically introduce these new cells into the brains of Parkinson’s patients.
Parkinson’s disease is caused by the degeneration of a specific group of neurons. Neurons are those cells in the brains that are able to conduct nerve impulses. However, neurons transmit these nerve impulses by means of small molecules called “neurotransmitters.” Neurons release distinct neurotransmitters and some use acetylcholine, others glutamine, others dopamine, and still others norepinephrine. Think of it as neurons speaking different languages to talk to each other. Some speak acetylcholine, while others use dopamine, and so on. In a portion of the brain called midbrain, there is a small, black group of neurons that speak dopamine. This group of neurons is collectively called the “substantia nigra,” which simply means “black stuff.” These dopamine-using neurons are the ones that degenerate during Parkinson’s disease.
Patients who suffer from Parkinson’s disease have problems with motor skills, speech, and other functions as well. Parkinson’s disease patients also have movement disorders that include stiffness of the muscles, tremors, a slowing and eventual loss of physical movements.
This stem cell research team at Oxford University is carrying out the first iPSC clinical study ever. It will also not involve the destruction of human embryos. The group hopes to take skin cells from at least 1,000 Parkinson’s patients, and transform them into neurons. These experiments will be challenging because iPSCs, to date, do not usually form neurons in culture very effectively. These experiments, however, will provide researchers with large quantities of experimental neurons for experimental purposes. These experimental neurons will be used to treat patients, and also to test Parkinson’s disease treatments in culture.
According to Richard Wade-Martins, the head of the Oxford Parkinson’s Disease Centre: “Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease in the UK and is set to become increasingly common as we live longer. Once we have neurons from patients we can compare the functioning of cells taken from patients with the disease and those without to better understand why dopamine neurons die in patients with Parkinson’s.”
This a very exciting study and it is a shame that it did not happen in the US first.