Engineered cells offer hope to Parkinson's sufferers

By Adela Talbot
October 24, 2013

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Researchers at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry have discovered a potentially promising treatment for patients suffering from degenerative neurological ailments – one that comes from small brain biopsies.

“It’s an exciting opportunity not only to obtain living brain tissue from patients so we can study it, but the ability to develop a cell therapy where you could re-implant a person’s own brain-derived cells,” said Dr. Matthew Hebb, who led the study.

Hebb, a Schulich professor in Clinical Neurological Sciences (Neurosurgery), Oncology and Otolaryngology, teamed up with Western colleagues Hu Xu, Louiza Belkacemi, Mandar Jog and Andrew Parrent for the study. Neurotrophic Factor Expression in Expandable Cell Populations From Brain Samples in Living Patients with Parkinson’s Disease was published in the October issue of The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

Funded by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, the study comprises the largest cohort of biopsied patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease and demonstrates the potential for significant growth of a patient’s own cells following small biopsies collected during a patient’s routine neurosurgical care.

But why is this important?

“When grown in culture, these cells are complex in their make-up, but exhibit regeneration and characteristics of a fundamental class of brain cells, called glia. They express a broad array of natural and potent protective agents, called neurotrophic factors, with well-recognized ability to preserve and protect brain cells from injury, toxins and diseases,” said Hebb, also a Lawson Health Research Institute scientist.

“This is the first time these cells have been characterized in this way, in such a large cohort of Parkinson’s patients.”

As part of the study, Parkinson’s patients scheduled to have deep brain stimulation surgery, a common procedure involving electrodes in the brain to reduce symptoms, underwent small biopsies. The collected brain cells flourished in culture, producing millions of patient-specific cells favorable for re-integration back into the patient’s own brain.

“Cell transplantation in the brain offers potential for the treatment of many common and devastating neurological disorders,” Hebb said.

Down the road, the team will look at the method’s treatment potential for other neurodegenerative problems such as Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.

The new tissue, grown from biopsied cells, is a promising treatment option because it is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and protect the brain, potentially stopping the progression of Parkinson’s by stopping the death of neurons in affected parts of the brain. Current treatment methods of drugs or cell-based therapies cannot cross the blood-brain barrier and cannot directly target affected areas of the brain.

“What we’re working on, what we’re hoping to do in the near future, is learn what these cells are capable of when re-implanted, looking at their survival, their ability to migrate, release protective factors,” he noted.

“Imagine if you could develop such a strategy – you may be able to engineer cells in a lab, before putting them back so they secrete chemicals or agents that are missing, like dopamine, in Parkinson’s, for example,” Hebb added, alluding to the potential for personalized medicine and treatment.

Challenges in this field remain, however, and he added a major stumbling block is the selection and effectiveness of the most appropriate cell types. While it could be years before this method proves an effective treatment, Hebb is optimistic, noting the potential to deliver effective, personalized therapy would be of great benefit to patients.


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