A group from the UK will be part of the first trial of a new treatment for Parkinson's disease.
Stem cells grown in the lab will be transformed into nerve cells to replace those destroyed by the disease. The hope is that these will stop the spread of diseases.
Prof Roger Barker of Cambridge University said that they might be able to offer tissue transplants as standard treatments for Parkinson's in a few years. It is a good approach.
There are 145,000 people with Parkinson's in the UK. The disease can be triggered by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
A person is helped by dopamine. Patients using a wheelchair or being bed-ridden can be made sick by the effects of supplies dropping. The drug L-dopa can be used to slow the progression of the disease. Treatments don't work as well over the years. Scientists have been looking for new ways to work.
The replacement of dying dopamine cells with unaffected versions has been tried by several centers around the world. Fetal tissue was initially used for medical research.
At least six or seven foetuses are needed to provide enough material for one patient because dopamine-making cells can be found in fetal tissue. These cells were injected into patients in trials in Europe. Treatments in the US were less effective.
Many people objected to the use of tissue from aborted babies. It was difficult to find enough supplies for treatments. Barker and his team at Cambridge have developed a technology that avoids these problems.
Stem cells are used in the new approach to generating specialized cells. Stem cells can be grown in a petri dish. Scientists have figured out how to turn them into dopamine cells. The core of the transplants will take place next month.
Barker said that putting dopamine cells in the brain would work. It's no longer a problem to have enough tissue because we can make it in large numbers in the lab. The cost isn't very high. A supply of dopamine cells made out of stem cells has become a standard product and we don't have any cells that are harmful to the baby.
It will take several years before we know that stem-cell transplants can be used as standard treatments for Parkinson's disease, but we are now at a point where we can use them.
The trials will last over the course of a year. Eight people from the UK and four from Sweden will be participating. Barker said that the cells are in a freezer. Sweden has the instruments to carry out the transplants. Over the course of the year, there will be more trials.
The trials are expected to last at least two years. Careful scrutiny of the results and any side effects will follow them. Tissue transplants could be ready for wider use in about five years if these go well.
Young patients will benefit the most from this therapy. It is going to be a one-off treatment, so that the side effects of chronic medications will not arise, while those advanced therapies involving deep brain stimulation will not be needed so often.