University of Saskatchewan and Harvard University researchers are starting down a path they hope will lead to a Holy Grail of brain medicine.
“It is probably one of the most exciting things in my career,” said Dr. Ivar Mendez, head of the U of S Brain Repair Program.
Researchers at the two universities aim to use stem cells to treat Parkinson’s disease, which kills the cells in the brain that create dopamine, a chemical messenger. This in turn leads to symptoms such as tremors. The disease can be treated with artificial dopamine, but that doesn’t stop the irreversible neurological devastation.
Stem cells can become any cell in the brain – such as a cell that produces dopamine. The trick has been to figure out how to make that happen.
Now, researchers are armed with a state-of-the art neuroinjector which can deposit stem cells to within 0.3 millimetres of a target area.
Mendez’s team is one of very few in the world, and the only one in Canada, with experience putting cells into the human brain.
The Boston-based Center for Neuroregeneration Research at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, brings expertise in producing stem cells from a patient’s own skin or blood, which means they won’t be rejected.
“It is really a perfect partnership,” Mendez said.
First, the team will study the survival rate of stem cells in the brain, how long it takes them to make connections, the speed of recovery, how many cells they can produce and how many they actually need.
Clinical trials should start within two to three years. The technology could start becoming available to the public five years from now, Mendez said.
“It would be huge. We will be able to replace the cells that have died or are dying of Parkinson’s disease.”
It’s technically not a cure, since the cause of the disease still isn’t known – but it would still be the most important development since the invention of artificial dopamine, Mendez said.
In the future, the technique could be applied to victims of stroke, brain and spinal cord injuries or Alzheimer’s.
“It will be the door that will open the ability to repair the brain,” Mendez said.
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