Stem cell method put to the test in Parkinson's study

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
Scientists hope to better understand Parkinson's

UK researchers are launching a study into the potential of using a person's stem cells to treat Parkinson's disease.

A Oxford University team will use adult stem cells, which have the ability to become any cell in the human body - to examine the neurological condition.

Skin cells will be used to grow the brain neurons that die in Parkinson's, a conference will hear.

The research will not involve the destruction of human embryos.

Induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells were developed in 2007.

At the time, scientists said it had the potential to offer many of the advantages of embryonic stem cells without any of the ethical downsides.

Three years on, it seems to be living up to that claim.

Compare and contrast

The team at Oxford University is among the first in the world to use IPS to carry out a large scale clinical investigation of Parkinson's, which is currently poorly understood.

Media caption,
Kieran Breen from Parkinson's UK explains how the study works

Researchers will be taking skin cells from 1,000 patients with early stage Parkinson's and turning them into nerve cells carrying the disease to learn more about the brain disorder, the UK National Stem Cell Network annual science meeting will hear.

The technique is useful because it is difficult to obtain samples of diseased nerve tissue from patient biopsies.

IPS enables the researchers to create limitless quantities of nerve cells to use in experiments and to test new drugs.

"Parkinson's disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease in the UK and is set to become increasingly common as we live longer," said Dr Richard Wade-Martins, head of the Oxford Parkinson's Disease Centre.

"Once we have neurons from patients we can compare the functioning of cells taken from patients with the disease and those without to better understand why dopamine neurons die in patients with Parkinson's."

The research is being funded by Parkinson's UK.

The charity's director of research, Kieran Breen, described it as "vital research that will help us better understand the causes of this devastating condition and how it develops and progresses.

"We hope the work will pave the way for new and better treatments for people with Parkinson's in the future."

About 120,000 people in the UK are living with Parkinson's.

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