Stem cells to aid study of Parkinson’s

A new stem cell technology is to be used by Oxford University researchers to better understand the causes of Parkinson’s disease.

The technique will use skin samples to grow the brain cells thought to be responsible for the onset of Parkinson’s disease, allowing these important neurons to be studied in detail.

Dr Richard Wade-Martins of the Oxford Parkinson's Disease Centre explained how he and his team will use the technique at the annual science meeting of the UK National Stem Cell Network (UKNSCN).

They will gather data from over 1,000 patients with early stage Parkinson’s disease and take small samples of skin tissue to grow special stem cells – induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). iPS cells can be generated from accessible tissue such as the skin and then used to generate specific types of cell.

The researchers will use the iPS cells to grow dopamine neurons, the brain cells responsible for the production of dopamine. It is these cells which die in patients with Parkinson’s, leading to the onset of the disease.

Dr Wade-Martins explained: ‘Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease in the UK and is set to become increasingly common as we live longer.

‘iPS cells provide new and exciting opportunities to grow and study dopamine neurons from patients for the first time. This technology will prove to be extremely important in diseases which affect the brain because of its relative inaccessibility – it’s far easier to get a skin sample than a brain biopsy.

‘Once we have neurons from patients we can compare the functioning of cells taken from patients with the disease and those without to better understand why dopamine neurons die in patients with Parkinson’s.’ 

Over the next five years with funding from Parkinson’s UK, the researchers will combine their stem cell work with the latest techniques in molecular genetics, protein science and brain imaging to develop ways of detecting the early development of Parkinson’s disease in individuals before symptoms arrive.

The £5 million Monument Discovery Award given to Dr Wade-Martins and his team is the largest grant ever awarded by Parkinson’s UK. 

Dr Kieran Breen, Parkinson’s UK Director of Research said: ‘We are passionate about finding a cure for Parkinson’s. This is important research that will help us better understand the causes of this devastating disease and how it develops and progresses. We hope the work will pave the way for new and better treatments for people with Parkinson’s in the future.’