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World’s First Trial Could Revolutionise Treatment For Parkinson’s Disease


In an experimental surgery at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, neuroscientists use pioneering technology and techniques to inject stem cells into the brain of a patient with Parkinson’s. The revolutionary treatment could reverse the debilitating effects of the disease, which are suffered by around 10 million people worldwide.

Although the majority of us suffer from a decrease in brain function as we get older, we are fortunate enough to be able to continue living healthy and independent lives.

For a lot of people, their brains continue to degenerate, nerve cells become more and more impaired, and they develop the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease progressively affects the nervous system and our ability to move, function, and live a normal life. The disease is characterised by tremors, rigidity, and slowness of movement, but also comes with everything from speech and communication problems to restless leg syndrome, difficulty sleeping, burning, numbness, and pain.

The prevalence of Parkinson’s disease and its lack of solutions make it of vital importance to stem cell research teams around the globe. And one team of neuroscientists at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia believe they are on track to be one of the first to develop that long awaited effective treatment.

Regenerating the Parkinson’s brain

“The idea with cellular replacement therapy is to be able to implant cells that will differentiate or change from stem cells into cells that either produce dopamine or provide other forms of support to remaining neurons.” –Dr Evans, lead researcher in the trial

In a five hour long procedure, stem cells were injected into the brain of a 64-year-old patient with Parkinson’s.

The doctors accessed the brain by drilling two 1.5cm holes in the skull. Through these holes, they were able to deliver millions of stem cells – totalling just 300 microlitres – to seven target sites on each side of the brain.

To conduct the operation, the team used a machine imported especially for the trial and donor stem cells flown in from the US.

With promising results from preclinical trials, the team hope the stem cells will boost the patient’s levels of dopamine – an essential neurotransmitter which people with Parkinson’s fail to produce.

The researchers are using stem cells known as pluripotent cells. Pluripotent cells, like the mesenchymal stem cells found in our teeth, have the ability to change into any cell type in the body. As they are susceptible to their environment, they are expected here to transform into new brain cells.

“Eventually we hope that we can use our therapy to cure Parkinson’s disease.” –Russel Kern, Chief Scientific Officer at ISCC

It’s still early days to say whether or not the trial was a success, but a scan 24 hours after the procedure showed the stem cells had reached all target sites without complication. The patient – whose identity is unknown – made a quick recovery and left the hospital just a few days later.

Eleven more people are now set to undergo the same procedure. It may be a while until its benefits are clear, though,  the team plan to report on the patients’ progress after a year. Of course, with no current treatments able to stop the progression of the disease and medications to manage the symptoms eventually becoming ineffective, any step in the direction of new treatments is a positive one.