Could “reprogramming” brain cells lead to a cure for Parkinson’s?

While it’s too early to hail it a breakthrough, many scientists are praising recent developments in the fight against Parkinson’s Disease.  

In a joint study carried out by the Karolinska Institutet, Medical University of Vienna, Malaga University and Stanford University, mice with Parkinson’s Disease had their cells “reprogrammed” in order to replace lost nerve cells. The results of the study were published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, and while human trials are said to be a long way off, the scientific community has commended the findings as a step in the right direction.

What did the study do?

When a patient is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, this causes a depletion of the nerve cells that carry the chemical dopamine to the brain.

Dopamine is responsible for helping the body to coordinate movements, and so the absence of correct levels of this chemical results in the tremors that characterise the disease. During the study, mice were injected with a virus that had been engineered to introduce a combination of genes into their brains. These genes targeted a type of glial cell called astrocytes cells, which do not produce the chemical dopamine or transmit nerve cells. The injected virus converted these astrocytes into dopamine-producing cells, which lead to improvements in the motor skills the mice exhibited when walking.

The best results occurred as a result of the injection of the four different types of genes, which lead to 16 per cent of the glial cells to develop into dopamine producing cells.  Five weeks after the injections, the mice were able to walk better when exercising in their runs than prior to receiving the injection.

The results

Researchers have long been looking for ways to replace the dopamine that is lost in patients with Parkinson’s.

In the past, attempts have been made and have been successful in generating these cells in a laboratory. However, while this has proved possible, there is then the issue of how to transplant these cells into the brain of the affected patient. Naturally this procedure poses a number of risks, which is why the results of this study could be so beneficial in the fight against Parkinson’s. The results demonstrate that it may be possible in the future to transform cells that are already present in the brain, thus removing the need for transplantation to take place. “The next steps to be taken toward achieving this goal include improving reprogramming efficiency, demonstrating the approach on human adult striatal astrocytes … in vivo [in an actual human, as opposed to a lab experiment], and ensuring safety and efficacy in humans,” the study concluded.


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