At least 16 clinical trials and one physician-led study in Japan are exploring stem cells for Parkinson’s disease. Some of these trials are using stem cells as living therapies, while others are using stem cells to study causes of the disease and its progression.
This research progress is critical, because Parkinson’s disease debilitates the body and causes tremors and numbness, loss of motor function, and stooping. Eventually, left untreated, Parkinson’s disease leads to death. The good news is, researchers are showing significant results in their studies on the link between stem cells and Parkinson’s disease.
In this article:
- An Introduction to Stem Cells
- What Are Stem Cells?
- What Is Parkinson’s Disease?
- How Does Stem Cell Therapy Work?
- How Can Stem Cells Help Heal This Condition?
- Are We Close to a Widespread Solution?
Stem Cells as a Parkinson’s Disease Treatment
The simple definition of a stem cell is a type of undifferentiated cell that can replicate and become other cell types that form the human body. Could these cell potentially represent a new approach to Parkinson’s disease treatment?
An Introduction to Stem Cells
It seems that stem cells have the ability to address the damage caused by the disease (discussed more thoroughly below), as well as restore the body to its former functions —if not completely, then significantly. Understanding how this works requires an initial understanding of Parkinson’s disease and stem cells, a promising form of regenerative medicine.
What Are Stem Cells?
The human body is a complex structure, with many complex cells within it. The vast majority of these cells are highly specialized. For instance, it uses muscle fibers to lengthen and contract muscles, creating movement. Brain cells are composed of long axons that transmit messages from nerve to nerve. Heart cells are a specialized form of muscle cell that keeps the ticker ticking away through the long decades.
Of course, these cells have to come from somewhere. Otherwise, a single egg and sperm could never create the entirety of a human body in all its miraculous function. That’s where stem cells come in. They are the body’s “master cells,” able to differentiate into more specific cells where needed. While many people associate stem cells with embryos, they actually exist in the adult body in many places, including:
- bone marrow
- fat tissue
- heart and liver cells
These “multipotent” stem cells are capable of turning into multiple types of cell. While they are not as powerful as “pluripotent” stem cells —those used by fetuses to become every cell in the human body —they do have significant potential. Researchers can take these cells and force them backward into a less differentiated state, so they become induced pluripotent stem cells —free of controversy, often coming from the patient themselves and able to become any cell needed, including nerves.
Through this mechanism, scientists and researchers have access to a resource for replacing cells in the body that it is not capable of making more of itself. That includes nerves and cartilage.
What Is Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease begins in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. Many of the cells in this area produce the dopamine needed to send signals in the brain that trigger movement. When these cells begin to die off due to the disease, the body can’t move as effectively. Eventually, the body loses almost all motor function as well as the ability to carry out other bodily processes.
The good news is that researchers have found several potential paths to Parkinson’s treatment that may enable them to slow down or halt the loss of dopamine-producing cells. Eventually, with regenerative medicine, they may be able to replace those cells. Ultimately, that would manifest as the cure for which Parkinson’s patients and their loved ones have prayed for since the disease’s discovery. But first, how exactly does stem cell therapy work?
How Does Stem Cell Therapy Work?
Stem cell therapy leverages the power of master cells to replace the missing cells in the body. Nerves, as stated, are not a naturally renewing resource, and they need replenishment by outside means in order to cure the disease. Here’s a brief overview of how the process works:
- Researchers begin with pluripotent cells, which are usually created from skin cells or blood cells
- They differentiate the pluripotent stem cells into brain-specific cells (for example, dopaminergic progenitors)
- They grow the differentiated cells to a critical quantity in the lab
- They insert large quantities of the stem cells into the patient’s brain
How Can Stem Cells Help Heal This Condition?
So, how do Parkinson’s disease and stem cells relate? In a nutshell, Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative condition. That means the body slowly loses ability over time in direct correlation with the nerve cells it loses. Stem cells constitute one of the viable treatments for Parkinson’s disease in that they can replace those cells.
According to recent studies, transplanted cells in studies about stem cells and Parkinson’s disease have shown the ability to do the following:
- survive in the brain long after transplantation
- function in similar ways to cells in much younger individuals
- produce long-term links such as that in normal, healthy brains
- grow new axons that send messages throughout the brain effectively, meaning that patients who receive the treatment can function much more normally
With these new treatments, physicians may soon have the power to restore motor function to Parkinson’s sufferers, reversing the effects of the disease and eventually curing the disease completely, resulting in a normal brain with the ability to form lasting connections, memories, and thoughts.
Stem cells have another possible use as well: Researchers can use them to create effective models of the brain on which to test new drugs or therapies that may also help reduce or reverse the effects of Parkinson’s disease. As with other uses of stem cells, this research is still in its early stages as well.
Clinical Trials for Parkinson’s Disease
A search of the world’s larest clinical trial database, ClinicalTrials.gov, reveals there are at least 16 clinical trials worldwide using different types of stem cells in an attempt to find a treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
Additionally, researchers from Kyoto University in Japan are conducting the a groundbreaking study for Parkinson’s disease, in which the first patient has been treated with a dose of 2.4 million cells.
Are We Close to a Solution?
Stem cell treatment for Parkinson’s disease is in its infancy. There are certain cancer drugs that can raise dopamine levels in Parkinson’s sufferers and may help ameliorate the symptoms until researchers can find more permanent ways of addressing the disease. These drugs, as well as the stem cell therapies described above, are undergoing clinical investigation and will reach a wider audience if they are proven effective and given regulatory approval.
To learn more about the use of stem cells for neurological conditions and other disesases, watch the video below:
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