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Test tube nerve cells may provide new treatments

September 27, 2000

Heather Heilman

Stem cells from human bone marrow, treated with growth hormones and antioxidants in precise laboratory conditions, can be transformed into what seem to be neurons, according to research reported in August. The results made international news because they suggested an alternative to using human embryos as a source of raw material in genetic research.

Darwin Prockop, director of Tulane's new Center for Gene Therapy, co-authored the report about the discovery, which appeared last month in Journal of Neurological Research. The new lab-developed nerve cells could be used as powerful treatment for things like Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, stroke and spinal cord injuries. But it's still uncertain whether the cells are true, functional neurons or whether they only look like that in the lab.

"I think they're early neurons," Prockop said. Prockop said the new nerve cells could be used in at least two ways. They can simply replace damaged or nonexistent cells, or they can be used to carry genes to the central nervous system. "We're working on Parkinson's disease, trying to put in the genes that will produce dopamine, which is the critical neurotransmitter missing in Parkinson's," Prockop said of his current work.

He expects a human trial of the method to begin in about two years. The neurons used in treatment would be developed from the patient's own stem cells, so there would be little danger of rejection. This method also would allow doctors and researchers to side step the ethical and political issues involved in using stem cells from human embryos.

Stem cells are simple, primitive, undifferentiated cells that have the potential to develop into specialized cells. Prockop and his fellow researchers have already shown that if these undifferentiated cells are injected directly into the brains of laboratory rats, they will become nerve cells. But for some purposes it might be better to develop the cells in the laboratory before they are used for treatment.

"We're dealing with very complex, big diseases," Prockop said. "We're thinking about Parkinson's, we're also starting experiments on Alzheimer's, and we're looking at stroke, multiple sclerosis, and anything that goes wrong in the brain or central nervous system."

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