Researchers in upstate New York have developed a new cell therapy that could treat Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder which affects motor function. The study from the University of Rochester Medical Center suggests this new approach could not only halt progression of the disease, but also reverse its impact on the brain.
Approximately one million Americans suffer from Parkinson’s disease, and that number is poised to rise as the population ages.
There’s no cure for the disorder, and current treatments tend to focus on repairing only one cell type. The problem is, many different kinds of cells are damaged as the disease progresses.
Now, researchers have found a way to use supporter cells known as astrocytes to spur wider recovery throughout the brain.
“So we can think of them as a work crew that delivers multiple tools at the same time, each of which can target a different cell population,” says lead author Chris Proschel.
Proschel says they were careful to begin their treatment only after their lab mice had developed signs of Parkinson’s disease. He says this delay is important because it mimics the way therapies are actually used in humans, where damage has occurred and symptoms have presented before any treatment is carried out.
And, he says, the results were promising.
“We do think, because of the way the animal trials were set up that these cells are capable of recovering function, not just stopping the progression of the disease," Proschel explains. "And it is always possible to combine this particular approach with neural replacement therapies to boost the gain even higher and to get possibly even better recovery.”
Proschel says astrocytes are usually overlooked, but they play a critical role in the brain. He says his team has identified a way to manipulate the cells that produce astrocytes, meaning they can produce them in their most useful form to treat Parkinson’s.
“Astrocytes are increasingly becoming important as players in the brain," Proschel says. "We have been lucky in a way that we were able to identify the precursors that produce these astrocytes so that we’re not dependent on isolating them directly from tissue, but we can actually generate them in the culture dish in a way that makes them as useful as possible."
Proschel says other degenerative diseases share a similar process to Parkinson’s, and he’s hopeful their approach could be useful in developing therapies for a wider range of disorders.
“Several other neurodegenerative diseases have a lot of similarities to the underlying pathologies in Parkinson’s disease," Proschel says. "So that might suggest that this approach could also be useful for populations like in Alzheimer’s which have an even greater number of patients affected.”