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Self-Transplant for Parkinson's

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

April 8, 2002 -- It's already known that embryonic stem cell transplants can help people with Parkinson's disease. The problem, aside from the ethical dilemma, is the ongoing threat of an autoimmune reaction. But now, researchers have found that they can coax a patient's adult cells to become dopamine-producing nerve cells, then use them as a safer and effective treatment.

Michel F. Lévesque, MD, FRSC, and Toomas Neuman, PhD, performed the autologous, or "self" transplant on a 57-year old man with severe Parkinson's disease. He'd been taking drugs that originally eased his symptoms but were no longer working, and he suffered with a disabling tremor. Lévesque is the director of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center's Neurofunctional Surgery Center; Toomas is director of neurobiology at Cedars-Sinai.

The researchers extracted precursor nerve cells, or neural stem cells, from the patient and coaxed them to develop into the sort of nerve cells that produce dopamine -- the crucial brain chemical that becomes depleted in the brains of Parkinson's patients. The team then multiplied these cells in the laboratory and injected them back into the patient's brain.

They then assessed the man's condition at three, six, nine, and 12 months after the transplant. At the first check-up, while he was taking medication, the man's motor scores had improved 37% and tests showed a more than 55% increase in brain dopamine. By the 12-month mark, his scores had improved 81% when he took medication and 83% when he didn't.

The man did not have to take drugs to suppress his immune system, commonly used in transplant patients.

"One of the most significant findings of this study was the patient's combined clinical improvement over time," says Lévesque in a news release.

The study showed that adult nerve cells from a patient's own body can become a source of dopamine nerve cells. "This form of treatment has the potential for making [nerve] stem cell therapy acceptable and available to a large number of patients," says Lévesque.

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