Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative condition, resulting in the loss of specific types of nerve cells from the brain.

The ‘motor symptoms’ of Parkinson’s are associated with a reduction in the number of these nerve cells (or neurons) that produce the chemical ‘dopamine’ in the mid-brain. For a long time, researchers have been experimenting with different methods to replace these lost neurons, as a means of treating Parkinson’s.

Most of these methods have focused around dopamine cell-replacement therapy, like the TRANSEURO study Cure Parkinson’s supports. Dopamine cell-replacement therapy involves injecting new neurons into the brain. The body’s immune system however can reject these cells, as it would an infection, so researchers have been developing novel methods by which cells already present in the brain can be ‘reprogrammed’ and converted into dopamine-producing neurons.

The brain is made up of multiple types of cells. There are the neurons that conduct much of the cognitive functioning in the brain such as learning, thinking, remembering, problem solving etc. Then there are a collection of supportive helper cells which include astrocytes and microglia.

In April 2020, a research group in Shanghai (China), demonstrated that by reducing levels of a single protein in one type of helper cell – the astrocytes – they were able to encourage astrocytes to become neurons. In addition, they found that in mouse models of Parkinson’s, those converted astrocytes then went on to become dopamine neurons specifically. 

A second independent research team in California have demonstrated the same result, this being the conversion of astrocytes to dopamine producing neurons by reducing a single protein – with the additional finding that this conversion can correct the motor/behavioural symptoms of the Parkinson’s model. This is exciting news, but further research is required before this experimental strategy can be taken forward into clinical testing in humans.

Dr Simon Stott, Deputy Director of Research, Cure Parkinson’s, said:

This is an exciting new set of results, but they should be viewed as very early stage developments. This approach will require a lot of further testing and chararcterisation before it will be ready for clinical testing.

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