August 29, 2011

Creating Brain Cells from Skin Cells: A Major Step Forward in Parkinson's Research?

My roller-coaster keeps going up, down, and around. After the trip through California and the Pacific Northwest, the car accident, and the earthquake, came the hurricane. Irene brought the Washington area lots of rain and wind, but damage was light here, though we lost power for a while. I already had this Parkinson's research summary in the queue, ready to post.

Reading details of a promising new study about cells and Parkinson’s, I thought first about Michael J. Fox, Nancy Reagan, and other high-profile proponents of the use of stem-cells in the long march toward helping sufferers of diseases like PD and Alzheimer’s. Then I thought how people living now – and those yet unborn – will have their lives immeasurably improved, and lengthened, too, when science leads us to a solution, as it has with so many other conditions.

This newest study, led by a group from the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with University College-London, and announced last week by the BBC, reports that researchers have created brain nerve cells from skin samples of a person with a rapidly progressing type of Parkinson’s Disease.

Developing a new supply of those cells, called neurons, will help scientists learn why they deteriorate in the brains of Parkinson’s patients. And that new cell source, the study’s authors hope, will enable researchers to develop drugs that retard the progress of – and even prevent – the disease.

Dr Tilo Kunath at the University of Edinburgh's Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine, said:

Current drugs for Parkinson's alleviate symptoms of the condition. Modelling the disease in a dish with real Parkinson's neurons enables us to test drugs that may halt or reverse the condition. This study provides an ideal platform to gain fresh insight into the condition, and opens a new area of research to discover disease-modifying drugs.
People with this fast-progressing form of Parkinson’s – like the study’s example – possess twice as many genes that produce the protein alpha synuclein than the general population. That protein is associated with nearly all types of PD, which means this study has potential application to PD sufferers generally.

Dr Kieran Breen, Director of Research and Development at Parkinson's UK, said:

Although the genetic mutation that leads to this progressive form of Parkinson's is rare this exciting study has the potential to bring about a huge breakthrough in Parkinson's research. This is just the kind of innovative research that Parkinson's UK is committed to funding as we move closer to a cure.
This study’s methodology avoids the divisive, ethics-laden debate common to much of the discussion about stem cell research. Science has managed to improve – and prolong – the lives of disease sufferers for centuries. While this new technology involves the more complex arena of the human genome, it’s hard to think there can be any outcome from continued study and research but eventual SUCCESS. In time, and as our science and technology develop, why shouldn’t Parkinson's, Alzheimer’s, and other degenerative diseases go the way of smallpox and polio? It seems unreasonable to think otherwise.

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