September 28, 2011

From Stem Cells to Dopamine-Producing Brain Cells?

Stem Cell Awareness Day is right around the corner: October 5. With an early nod to that date, I wanted to share some recent news about stem cells and Parkinson’s.

A team led by Dr. Stuart Lipton, director of Sanford-Burnham’s Del E. Webb Neuroscience, Aging, and Stem Cell Research Center, converted human embryonic stem cells into neural progenitor cells (which become brain cells). Then, applying a particular protein (MEF2C), they coaxed those cells to become neurons that actually produce dopamine. It’s the loss of the chemical dopamine that compromises the brain’s ability to send messages that control muscle function – the problem which leads to the symptoms of Parkinson’s. Current therapies treat those symptoms by adding dopamine with medication. This new study suggests it may be possible to enable the brain to produce that key substance on its own.

It also appears this new procedure employed by Dr. Lipton in his study with rats avoids some of the drawbacks researchers have encountered in previous studies. Not only does the protein MEF2C create dopamine-producing neurons, it also seems to guard cells from premature degeneration, and avoids tumor development. Said Dr. Lipton:

This approach could potentially provide a limitless supply of stem cells for therapeutic application in Parkinson’s disease. Our technique represents a unique approach for the production of cells for regenerative medicine, while at the same time avoiding [cell death] and tumorigenesis.
If this procedure shows continued promise with other animal models, clinical trials using humans with PD can’t be too far off.

New Studies Abound
Every week, it seems there are new developments in the march of science – using stem cells – to treat, or even prevent, disease. On August 29, I blogged here about a study at the University of Edinburgh that reported creating brain nerve cells from skin samples of a person with a rapidly progressing type of Parkinson’s.

Developing a new supply of those cells – neurons -- will help scientists learn more about how and why they deteriorate in the brains of Parkinson’s patients. The new cell source could also allow researchers to develop new studies, and facilitate the development of new drugs to treat the disease.

We ARE Moving Toward the Light… Right?
To be sure, we need more time – more money, more comprehensive studies, probably more squabbling about ethics – before science finds a path to treating, curing, preventing a degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.  The current stalemate in Congress over anything to do with the budget is probably the biggest obstacle.  Cutbacks and ceilings on government spending for medical research on chronic degenerative diseases doesn't make sense if you think of the savings in federal spending that would result from  breakthroughs in treating Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. But good common sense seems to be in short supply in Congress these days..

By the way, if you’d like to learn more about Stem Cell Awareness Day events, here’s the info:

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