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Parkinson's disease and can stem cells help?

Parkinson is a neurological disorder, which affects the specific area in the brain called substantia nigra. Parkinson's disease occurs as a result of a gradual loss of a specific type of nerve cell, located in that area. These neurons are called dopaminergic neurons and they produce a natural chemical called dopamine. When affected, these cells produce less dopamine. This results in patients with Parkinson's disease having difficulty in moving freely, holding a posture, talking and writing. . This condition causes muscles to become rigid and limbs to tremble uncontrollably.

Parkinson's disease is one of the most common nervous system disorders of the elderly though sometimes Parkinson's disease occurs in younger adults. It affects both men and women. In some cases, Parkinson's disease occurs in families. Parkinson's in children may occur because the nerves are not as sensitive to dopamine. Parkinson's is rare in children.

This brain disorder may affect one or both sides of the body. The functional loss to limbs is variable. Symptoms include slowing or stopping of automatic movements (such as blinking), constipation, difficulty swallowing, drooling, impaired balance and walking, lack of expression in the face (mask-like appearance), Muscle aches and pains, Movement problems , Difficulty starting or continuing movement, such as starting to walk or getting out of a chair, Loss of small or fine hand movements; writing may become small and difficult to read; eating becomes difficult, Rigid or stiff muscles, often beginning in the legs, Shaking, tremors, Slowed, quieter speech and monotone voice

As there is no known cure for Parkinson's disease, treatment involves primarily controlling of symptoms. Patients are put on medication regime which primarily, aims at increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain. Though there may be certain side effects of the drug like, hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and delirium. With time certain symptoms like stooped posture, frozen movements, and speech difficulties may stop reacting to the drug treatment. Lifestyle changes are also recommended to Parkinson's patients to aid combating the symptoms. For patients with very severe Parkinson's disease who no longer respond to many medications less commonly, deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery may be an option. These surgeries do not cure Parkinson's, but may help some patients.

Stem cell therapy hold the promise of providing cure for disease by growing new tissues and organs from stem cells -these are 'blank' cells that have the potential to develop into fully mature or 'differentiated' cells. Stem celli-based therapies for Parkinson's disease though not a routine clinical procedure, Scientists believe offers great potential for treatment. Studies are on to understand the actual causes of Parkinson's disease and the biology of stem cells for trials resulting in safe, effective and long-lasting therapy development.

Stem cell therapy can spell huge success in providing with a remedy for Parkinson's disease because a single, well-identified type of cell is affected in Parkinson's disease. The primary principle behind this treatment is to replace the cells that have died with other identical dopaminergic neurons.

The dopaminergic neurons can readily be obtained from:

  • Embryonic stem cells in the laboratory
  • Dopaminergic neurons can also be obtained from fetal brain tissue.
There is documented proof of clinical trials where fetal brain tissue stem cells were injected and transplanted into the brains of Parkinson's disease patients. And these are proof-of-principle for the above mentioned approach, as some patients exhibited major and long-lasting improvements post the treatment.

Several other concerns of stem cell therapy for parkinson's disease were also brought to light in the trial like the need to produce large amounts of pure, uniform cells for transplantation into patients.

Now embryonic-like stem cells can be obtained from adults through a method called "reprogramming". By this process of reprogramming (also referred to engineering) a sample of adult, specialised cells is taken from a patient, and made into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The special attribute of these iPS cells is that they can make any type of cell found in the body, including dopaminergic neurons.

Scientists are now generating iPS cells from people suffering with Parkinson's disease and then these cells are being used to produce neurons in the laboratory. Also another possible approach being tried is transplanting these cells into the brain of the patients, to produce new neurons.

Stem cells engineering in labs can also be used for developing and testing new drugs to treat brain disease.

The major challenge lies in creating such cells that function efficiently and safely. Early efforts of using neural stem cells -- which were programmed to develop only into nerve cells, have shown promising results. It nearly showed a complete reversal of the behavioural abnormalities, and neurons also differentiated, survived and re-innervated the relevant part of the brain better.

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