RESEARCHERS in Scotland are moving closer to developing treatments for Parkinson's disease using stem cells, a conference will hear this week.
The MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at Edinburgh University has been turning embryonic stem cells into a cell type lost in Parkinson's patients.
Dr Tilo Kunath, who has been working on the project, said the ultimate aim was to create enough appropriate cells to inject into the brains of patients to reverse the effects of the neurological condition.
With several hurdles still to overcome, it could be 20 years before a treatment is ready for widespread use.
But Dr Kunath will tell the conference in York – entitled Progress: Advancing Parkinson's Research – about the steps his team has taken towards creating the vital cells in their lab. Speaking ahead of the meeting, which starts today, Dr Kunath told The Scotsman he was confident a cure would be found.
Parkinson's, which affects about 120,000 people in the UK, is caused by a loss of neurons in the brain that produce the chemical dopamine. The disease causes problems with walking, writing and speaking, with symptoms including tremors and rigid muscles. There is currently no cure.
Dr Kunath, a Parkinson's Disease Society research fellow, said the team had been working with embryonic stem cells – early-stage cells with the potential to develop into almost any type of cell, including neural cells.
The embryonic stem cells are coaxed into becoming specialised neural cells over several days using a specifically formulated culture medium.
"We want to be able to produce the dopamine-producing neural cells which are lost in Parkinson's sufferers," Dr Kunath said. "The end goal is to create cells that are suitable for transplant into patients.
"Due to the hurdles we need to cross, that could be at least 20 years away, but I do believe we will get to the stage where we are treating and curing patients in this way."
Dr Kunath said his team could now make about 60 per cent of cells turn into neural cells, some of which go on to make dopamine-producing cells. The remaining 40 per cent are a variety of other non-neural cells, such as heart tissue. "We want to get into a position where the majority of the cells are dopamine-producing neural cells," he said.
As well as producing enough of the appropriate cells, researchers will also have to tackle the issue of cells being rejected when transplanted into patients, the Parkinson's Disease Society conference will hear.
Another problem could be cells dying after they have been transplanted, making them useless for the patient.
Dr Kieran Breen, director of research at the Parkinson's Disease Society, said: "We believe stem cells offer real hope for people with Parkinson's."
1 million motor neurone drug trial
A 1 MILLION trial could offer new hope for people with motor neurone disease (MND), the devastating nerve illness suffered by Celtic and Scotland legend Jimmy Johnstone.
The study, to be carried out in England next year, will test whether lithium, a cheap drug prescribed for some depressive illnesses, can extend the lives of MND patients, who often survive little more than a year after diagnosis.
There is anecdotal and laboratory evidence that lithium can slow the progress of MND. Up to 10 per cent of patients are already thought to be taking the drug, even in the absence of trial evidence supporting its use.
However, scientists leading the new study warn that this is ill-advised, since lithium can have serious side-effects.
The new trial, to be partly funded by the Department of Health, will begin in the first half of next year and involve 220 English patients.
One of the study leaders, Professor Nigel Leigh, the director of the MND Care Centre at King's College London, said: "We're looking for something like a 20 per cent reduction in death rate at the end of 18 months, which is a huge effect."