Neurochemical Reboot

New Zealand biotech company Living Cell Technologies has developed a treatment for Parkinson's disease using choroid plexus cells from pigs. These cells are found in the area of the brain that manufactures a mix of signaling molecules and growth factors that maintain nerve health, so the researchers transplanted the healthy cells from pig donors into four human subjects. 18 months post surgery, the results are still promising, so researchers began a placebo-controlled trial in 18 additional patients in May.

Parkinson's disease is characterized by the progressive loss of dopamine-making brain cells. Dopamine itself helps the brain control movement in the body. The aim of this treatment is to nourish existing healthy brain cells in recipients to slow or prevent further loss. Thus far, the technique has proven successful in the treatment of rats with a species-specific corollary of Parkinson's disease.

“It’s putting in a little neurochemical factory to promote new nerve cell growth and repair,” Ken Taylor of Living Cell Technologies told New Scientist.

The researchers need the placebo-controlled results to ensure that they're not observing the placebo effect; this is a particular concern in this case since the four patients reported immediate improvements and nerve cells cannot physically respond and regrow that quickly. Other studies have shown that symptoms of Parkinson’s disease appear to respond to the placebo effect at a high rate. However, because the results have been maintained for 18 months, it is also possible that the results are legitimate. Only the placebo-controlled data will reveal the truth.

Image Credit: sbtlneet/Pixabay[/caption]

Stamping Out Parkinson's Disease

Assuming this treatment is effective, it may be extended to treat other neurological disorders such as Huntington's and Alzheimer's. Another issue that will arise should the treatment succeed will be how it compares to other treatments, especially other cell therapies. Researchers have also had success with dopamine-producing brain cells taken from aborted fetuses, but this is a difficult sort of tissue to get, especially in the U.S. Other researchers hope to transform regular adult stem cells into dopamine-making cells; this would have the advantage of eliminating the rejection risk inherent to transplants and risks arising from the use of non-human DNA.

Successful treatments for Parkinson's disease could help millions of people — up to one million in the U.S., and an estimated seven to 10 million around the world. About 60,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with Parkinson’s annually, and thousands of cases remain undetected. It costs $2,500 per year on average to treat the disease, and therapeutic surgery may cost as much as $100,000 per patient. In fact, the estimated total direct and indirect cost of Parkinson’s in the U.S. alone, including lost income from inability to work, social security payments, and treatment, is almost $25 billion annually. Innovation in treatments like this could one day make medical care for Parkinson's disease more accessible.

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