More Humane

Doctors from the Royal Melbourne Hospital successfully injected stem cells onto the brain of a 64-year old Parkinson's Disease patient. This operation, the first of its kind, marks a positive step towards developing better Parkinson's treatment.

Researcher Garish Nair, a neurosurgeon at Royal Melbourne, led the procedure. He and his team injected millions of stem cells at 14 sites in the patient's brain. "The challenge was to do it in a way that you minimize the number of times that you pass your instrument through the brain, to minimize the damage," explains Dr Nair. To do so, they had to perform around 4 dummy rounds on a 3D model before the actual procedure.

Image source: Reuters

Not a Question of Ethics

The stem cell injection, the researchers hope, would boost the levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. Parkinson's is known to exhibit symptoms of "tremor, rigidity, and being unable to express emotions, affecting walking. All of those functions are mediated by dopamine," Dr. Nair explains. If successful, patient would display improvement in these areas.

The use of stem cells in medical treatment is largely controversial because of ethical concerns, particularly with embryonic stem cells. The procedure, however, does not present an ethical problem. The stem cells used were created using neural cells in a lab of a biotech company in California. 

"So the beauty of this technique is that this is an unfertilized egg activated in a lab, so there are no ethical issues surrounding this to be used as mainstream treatment down the line," says an optimistic Dr. Nair. 

Ethical concerns aside, there is also concern that its too soon for clinical trials of stem cell treatments. Earlier this year, Dr. Patrik Brundin, Director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Science at Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, MI, warned against the dangers of clinical trials being done too soon. "Acting prematurely has the potential not only to tarnish many years of scientific work, but can threaten to derail and damage this exciting field of regenerative medicine."

The researchers understand these concerns but feel they have received the proper approvals and adequate animal testing has been done to warrant a clinical trial.

At present, statics show that more than 10 million people are affected by Parkinson's, with about 60,000 in the US and 80,000 in Australia.

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