Could Stem Cell Therapy “Reprogram” Brain to Recover from Parkinson’s Disease?

Doctors in Japan have recently announced they are ready to implant neural cells manufactured out of “reprogrammed” stem cells into the brains of Parkinson’s disease patients. This marks the third clinical application for induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are special cells that can be developed by reprogramming various body tissue cells (notably skin cells) to revert back to an embryonic-like state.  Once in this state, those cells can then be morphed into other cells.

Researchers have already been successful in using this technique to generate embryonic precursors to the neurons in charge of making the neurotransmitter dopamine.  These neurons naturally degenerate (and even die) in people who have Parkinson’s Disease.  Furthermore, this new clinical trial comes less than a year after Kyoto University researchers successfully restored fully functioning brain cells in monkeys using only human induced pluripotent stem cells.

Indeed, Kyoto University Centre for iPS Cell Research and Application’s Jun Takahashi says: “This will be the world’s first clinical trial using iPS cells on Parkinson’s disease.”

2012 Nobel Prize award winner Shinya Yamanaka is head of the Center. Yamanaka shares this prize—in medicine—with British Scientist John Gurdon who was first the first to discover the possibility of transforming back into embryo-like cells.

Yamanaka adds, “We intend to carry on conducting our research carefully, yet expeditiously, in coordination with Kyoto University Hospital, so that new treatment using iPS cells will be brought to patients as soon as possible.”

Parkinson’s disease develops out of the death of specialized cells within the brain in order to produce the neurotransmitter dopamine.  Without adequate dopamine, we can start to experience motor skills decline, which is often characterized by mobility issues and trembling involuntarily and/or uncontrollably. Also, the progression of Parkinsons’ disease has been shown to lead to dementia.

The fact that the clinical trial uses iPS cells rather than human embryonic cells means the treatment would be acceptable in countries such as Ireland and much of Latin America, where embryonic cells are banned.

Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma Co Ltd has said it aims to manufacture and start selling cellular medicine based on the data from the clinical trials by the year ending March 2023.

The company said, however, the target is solely its own and not a shared goal with Kyoto University.


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