Sunday, November 12, 2006

A cure for Parkinson's disease is coming along, slowly...

` Man, it's been busy! Oddly, I haven't had problems sleeping, considering that a couple of days ago I goofed off until about four in the morning (I have no idea how I managed!) and woke up at about noon. But the next day I went to sleep at about ten and woke up at precisely four in the morning! I was so stoked that I was awake so early that I waltzed out the door...
` ...and right into a ginormous pile of puppy crap in the hallway! Yaaaargh! Apparently it was the result of the people downstairs not letting the puppy out the front door, so it tried another method of getting far enough away from its apartment.
` Then, yesterday I spent the night at Cheshire's house and had no trouble sleeping even though I was sharing the same blanket. (Well, she didn't attack me this time, so it was easy.) This evening, Lou and I went out and bought this lovely music studio computery stuff called Mbox 2, complete with tons of software! (On sale for only $450 at Guitar Center!)
` Since I haven't been at my computer too much lately, how about I pull out a good old-fashioned piece of Nature article? It concerns Parkinson's disease and some rats with similar problems.

Goldman and his team took human fetal midbrain tissues, in which dopamine cells are made, and extracted glial cells, whose normal role is to support and maintain the growth of neurons. They then cultured stem cells in this glia-rich environment.

"What we were really trying to do was to mimic the environment of the developing brain to increase the efficiency of dopamine-neuron generation, but also to bias the cells towards generating the type of dopamine neurons that we wanted," says Goldman.

The technique worked. When the new dopamine neurons were transplanted into the brains of rats with the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, the animals recovered almost entirely. "The positive results were really remarkably strong," Goldman says. "The animals exhibited almost a complete restoration of normal function."

But there could be alarming side effects. Each stem-cell transplant also contained cells that had failed to become neurons, and which remained undifferentiated. These cells keep dividing, and can turn into tumours, says Goldman. (The rats in the study were killed before any such tumours developed.)
` As unethical as this all sounds (as with plenty of medical studies), it is fascinating work! Now if they could only make dopamine-producing neurons that wouldn't cause tumors....
In the meantime, others are working on using gene therapy to stimulate neurons already present in the brain to produce more dopamine. This week, an American biotechnology company called Neurologix reported successful, preliminary trials of this technique. They introduced a harmless virus, equipped with a gene involved in the dopamine system, into the brains of patients. All showed an improvement of at least 25% in their symptoms.

But gene therapy too comes with a host of problems, including learning how to properly regulate the new genes, and the improvement isn't as dramatic as seen with the stem-cell approach. Goldman is cautious, but optimistic, about both. "Neither gene therapy nor stem cells are ready for primetime," he says.
` I predict that by the time my generation is old, we won't have to worry that much if we should be afflicted with Parkinson's disease. Or Alzheimer's for that matter, as that could probably be treated in similar ways.


Galtron said...

They used dead fetuses to influence stem cells, which reconstructed the rats' brains, correct? That makes me wonder if the direct influence of the dead fetuses themselves would have given the rats superpowers like in that episode of South Park?

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