Groundbreaking study offers glimmer of hope for people suffering from Parkinson's disease

In news that could potentially be a groundbreaking medical development, Japanese researchers have reported promising results from an experimental therapy conducted to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. A trial conducted on monkeys showed that the treatment derived from stem cells improved their symptoms and seemed to be safe, according to the report published in the journal Nature. For the study, the apes were given a version of the Parkinson's disease and doctors observed a significant reversal of the damaged cells, indicating that there is a possibility of a cure for the disease.

For the uninformed, Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative condition that leads to gradual loss of body control followed by complete loss of movement. It happens when there is a problem with certain nerve cells in the brain. These nerve cells that produce the important chemical called dopamine are responsible for sending signals to the part of your brain that controls movement. Parkinson's causes the loss of dopamine neurons hence loss of body movement and can also lead to dementia and other cognitive problems.

Jun Takahashi, a neurosurgeon from Kyoto University. Image Source: Japan Times

The team at Kyoto University, led by Professor Jun Takahashi, a neurosurgeon from the University transformed iPSC cells (the laboratory-made stem cells) from both healthy people and those with Parkinson’s, into dopamine-producing neurons.

They then transplanted these cells into the monkeys. The transplanted brain cells survived for at least two years and formed connections with the monkey’s brain cells, potentially explaining why the monkeys began moving around their cages more frequently, showing that the loss of movement was inhibited and a possible cure lay ahead for the disease.

The researchers now hope to start looking for suitable patients within the next 15 months. “Judging from our data and previous clinical trials using fetal midbrain tissues, I think a stem cell-based therapy is effective for Parkinson’s disease,” he told The Independent in an interview.

Writing in the journal Nature, the research team is hopeful as it found a 40 to 55 per cent improvement in motor skills in the monkeys after the new brain cells were transplanted. “It’s addressing a set of critical issues that need to be investigated before one can, with confidence, move to using the cells in humans,” says Anders Bjorklund, a neuroscientist at Lund University in Sweden who is a part of the research team conducting the trials.

Earlier this year, Chinese researchers had begun a Parkinson’s trial that used a different approach: giving patients cells made from a human fertilized embryo for the possible chance of developing dopamine-producing neurons in the patient's brain.

Teams in the United States, Sweden, and the United Kingdom are all planning to conduct trials to transplant dopamine-producing neurons made from embryonic stem cells into humans.

A year earlier, in a separate trial, patients in Australia received similar cells, showing that it is very much possible for a cure to be developed in the future. But some researchers are worried about the possibility of a tumor developing in the patient's head that can also lead to gradual mutations in the patient.

British experts have termed this development as extremely promising research demonstrating that a safe and highly effective cell therapy for Parkinson's can be produced in the lab.

If the trials go through smoothly, a million patients in the US itself stand to benefit from the same and we are hopeful for its success for a better tomorrow.

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Tarunika Rajesh


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