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Special Nerve Cells Could Aid Parkinson's Patients

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WebMD Health News

May 30, 2000 -- Researchers have generated nerve cells that produce a chemical called dopamine, and this research may point to ways to slow the progress of Parkinson's disease.

Dopamine is a chemical produced by the brain that is important for transmitting signals between nerves. It has also been found to play an important role in the coordination of movement of the body. Parkinson's disease occurs when there is not enough dopamine in the brain, which leads to tremors and stiffness in the body. One of the reasons the brain may not have enough dopamine is because some of the cells that produce it have died.

This current research on mouse "stem" cells, which are cells that have the potential to develop into almost any of the body's different tissues, may lead to the development of human dopamine-producing nerve cells, according to an article in the June issue of Nature Biotechnology.

"We feel this is a new approach to cell transplantation. It could be used for diseases where certain types of cells degenerate or die, such as Parkinson's disease," says Nadya Lumelsky, PhD, one of the study leaders. "At this point we are using cells derived from the mouse, but if human cells were available, the same methods would work. This approach could also be used for ... diseases such as multiple sclerosis and for type 1 diabetes or cirrhosis [or hardening] of the liver." Lumelsky is a special expert at the laboratory of molecular biology at the National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Md.

Previous work in this area has used fetal cells or brain cells because they could produce dopamine, but there is a limited supply of those kinds of cells. The real breakthrough in this research is the use of stem cells from mouse embryos to generate a "cell line" of these dopamine-producing nerve cells. This has never been done before, and it is important because a cell line is immortal, so there is no limit on the number of cells that can be generated. These methods could lead to a virtually unlimited supply of dopamine-producing nerve cells.

While the National Institutes of Health (NIH) research team has performed lab tests on the nerve cells to make sure that they do produce the dopamine, it has not actually placed these cells back into the mice's brains. That will be their next research step. However, based on similar work with these kinds of cells, researchers are confident the procedure will be effective.

"This research is not something that will help patients immediately," says Abraham Lieberman, MD. "It will allow us to have a much better understanding of how cells are formed and die in the brain, and of the disease process in humans." The researchers are well respected, he says, so their work should be taken very seriously. Lieberman is the national medical director of the National Parkinson Foundation in Miami.

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