Award-winning researcher's stem cell study offers hope for Parkinson's cure

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A GROUND-BREAKING stem cell study being carried out in Scotland could finally lead to a cure for Parkinson's disease.

A researcher at Edinburgh University has been awarded 380,000 to create a special type of stem cell from patients with Parkinson's and their relatives.

It is hoped that cell lines created from just three families will help researchers around the world test new treatments for the disease.

And eventually the research could lead to patients receiving transplants of their own specially-treated cells to cure the condition.

Dr Tilo Kunath has been awarded a senior research fellowship by the Parkinson's Disease Society to push forward with his stem cell work.

In patients with Parkinson's, nerve cells in a particular part of the brain involved in co- ordinating movement die, leading to symptoms like tremors and problems walking.

In a UK first, Kunath and colleagues will create induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) from people with Parkinson's to help understand why nerve cells die.

IPS cells are created by taking adult cells, such as from the skin, and reprogramming them in the lab to become cells which behave like embryonic stem cells – with the ability to transform into any type of cell, including nerve cells.

The researchers will recruit three people with Parkinson's, probably from Scotland, who have a family history of the disease. A sibling who does not have the condition will also be recruited from each family so the cells can be compared.

"We will be looking at whether they behave differently, for example if they survive chemical assaults," Kunath said.

"I will throw a variety of cytotoxic chemicals at them and see if there is any difference between the PD (Parkinson's disease) and the non-PD cells. Then we will try to find ways to protect the PD cells – first in cells, then rats and then hopefully this will be a new way of finding drugs to help protect people who are genetically predisposed to Parkinson's."

He added: "There is lots of scope for rapid large-scale drug screening, but up until now there just hasn't been a good cell-based model of Parkinson's disease."

Edinburgh will be first in UK to use this approach, with other researchers trying to do same in US and Japan.

The study will start in January once the research team has obtained NHS ethics approval, with the hope of producing lines of iPS cells by the end of the year.

"We will be sharing these cell lines with researchers in the UK who have expertise in other areas of Parkinson's," Kunath said. "The cell lines are immortal and they can be frozen down into many vials, and shipped to scientists around the UK."

The material will also be eventually available to researchers around the world and once the project starts, Kunath hopes to get funding to generate more stem cell lines.

His team will also carry out research with the University of Bristol, using the cells to try to treat rats with a Parkinson's-like condition.

The iPS cells will be manipulated to become the nerve cells missing in the brains of people with Parkinson's. Eventually, it is hoped the same technique could be used in humans to provide a cure for Parkinson's disease.

Diagnosis came after fishing trip

When Michael Walker was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease almost 15 years ago, he was not surprised.

Having suffered symptoms of the condition – which can include mobility and co-ordination problems – he knew something was wrong.

The 73-year-old has welcomed the news of research which could lead to a cure for the disease which affects around 120,000 people in the UK.

Walker, former chair of Western General Hospital NHS Trust, was diagnosed in 1995.

He said the diagnosis came after some friends who are doctors noticed certain changes in him, including differences in his handwriting. Walker said: "Another saw me walking up a riverbank when fishing and said. 'I think you should consult your GP.'"

Walker said the drugs used to control the condition were vital.

"It's important that you get the balance correct and you're constantly adjusting that. If that gets out of balance in any way then your bodily functions are severely compromised."