Gene therapy involves treating medical conditions at the level of DNA – that is, altering or enhancing the genetic code inside cells to provide therapeutic benefits rather than simply administering drugs. Usually this approach utilises specially engineered viruses to deliver the new DNA to particular cells in the body.
For Parkinson’s, gene therapy techniques have all involved direct injections of these engineered viruses into the brain – a procedure that requires brain surgery. This year, however, we have seen the EXTREMELY rapid development of a non-invasive approach to gene therapy for neurological condition, which could ultimately see viruses being injected in the arm and then travelling up to the brain where they will infect just the desired population of cells.
Last week, however, this approach hit a rather significant obstacle.
In today’s post, we will have a look at this gene therapy technology and review the new research that may slow down efforts to use this approach to help to cure Parkinson’s.
Gene therapy. Source: rdmag
When you get sick, the usual solution is to visit your doctor.
They will prescribe a medication for you to take, and then all things going well (fingers crossed/knock on wood) you will start to feel better. It is a rather simple and straight forward process, and it has largely worked well for most of us for quite some time.
As the overall population has started to live longer, however, we have begun to see more and more chronic conditions which require long-term treatment regimes. The “long-term” aspect of this means that some people are regularly taking medication as part of their daily lives. In many cases, these medications are taken multiple times per day.
A good example of this is Levodopa (also known as Sinemet or Madopar) which is the most common treatment for the chronic condition of Parkinson’s disease.
When you swallow your Levodopa pill, it is broken down in the gut, absorbed through the wall of the intestines, transported to the brain via our blood system, where it is converted into the chemical dopamine – the chemical that is lost in Parkinson’s disease. This conversion of Levodopa increases the levels of dopamine in your brain, which helps to alleviate the motor issues associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Levodopa. Source: Drugs
This pill form of treating a disease is only a temporary solution though. People with Parkinson’s – like other chronic conditions – need to take multiple tablets of Levodopa every day to keep their motor features under control. And long term this approach can result in other complications, such as Levodopa-induced dyskinesias in the case of Parkinson’s.
Yeah, but is there a better approach?
Last night surgeons at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, conducted an 8 hour surgery during which stem cells were injected into 14 sites in the brain of a 64 year old person with Parkinson’s disease. This was the first of 12 surgeries being conducted in a phase 1 clinical trial that will assess the safety of this particular type of stem cell in human.
Surgeons at work. Source: Reuters
Some media outlets have reported the surgery as taking us ‘one step closer to a cure for Parkinson’s disease’ (Click here, here, and here to see their reports). We here at the SoP.com are less excited by this new development, having previously expressed serious concerns about this trial (Click here for that post). We believe that the preclinical data presented thus far does not support going forward to the clinic prematurely with this particular type of stem cell.
Our primary concerns arise from some of the most recent preclinical work published by the company – International Stem Cell Corporation (ISCO) – behind the trial, particularly their preclinical non-human primate work:
Title: Neural Stem Cells Derived from Human Parthenogenetic Stem Cells Engraft and Promote Recovery in a Nonhuman Primate Model of Parkinson’s Disease.
Authors: Gonzalez R, Garitaonandia I, Poustovoitov M, Abramihina T, McEntire C, Culp B, Attwood J, Noskov A, Christiansen-Weber T, Khater M, Mora-Castilla S, To C, Crain A, Sherman G, Semechkin A, Laurent LC, Elsworth JD, Sladek J, Snyder EY, Jr DE, Kern RA.
Journal: Cell Transplant. 2016, 25 (11), 1945-1966.
PMID: 27213850 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
In this study, 12 African Green monkeys with induced Parkinson’s disease (caused by the neurotoxin MPTP) were injected in the brain with the ISCO’s stem cells (called hpNSCs). The cells are injected into two areas of the brain: the midbrain (where the dopamine cell that are lost in Parkinson’s disease normal reside) and the striatum (where the dopamine cells release their dopamine). Six additional monkeys with induced Parkinson’s disease received saline as a control condition. Behavioural testing was conducted and the brains were inspected at 6 and 12 months.
When the brains were analysed at 12 months post surgery, the researchers found that less than 2% of the transplanted cells actually developed into dopamine neurons. While this is a very low number of dopamine neurons, of greater concern is that we don’t know what became of the remaining transplanted cells.
More disturbing, however, is that the authors noted extensive migration of the cells into other areas of the brain. They have also reported this phenomena in their previous study involving mice. This is represents a major concern regarding the move to the clinic. The goal of the surgery is to inject the cells into a specific region of the brain for a specific reason – localised production of dopamine. The surgeons want the cells to stay where they are placed and for them to produce dopamine in that location. If cells are migrating away from that location and the dopamine is being produced in different areas of the brain, the therapeutic effect of the cell transplantation procedure may be reduced and there could also be unexpected side-effects (for example, dopamine being produced in the wrong areas of the brain – areas where dopamine should not be produced). Based on these findings, we still believe that proceeding to the clinic with these particular types of stem cells is premature and unwise.
ISCO is yet to make a press release about this overnight surgery (we can hopefully expect it later today given US time zones). The surgeons who conducted the surgery, however, have reiterated that this study is just a phase 1 trial to determine the safety of these cells in human. The transplanted subjects will be monitored for 12 months.
We will follow the proceedings here at the Science of Parkinson’s and keep you updated.
FULL DISCLOSURE – The author of this blog is associated with research groups conducting the current Transeuro transplantation trials and the proposed G-Force embryonic stem cell trials planned for 2018. He shares the concerns of the Parkinson’s scientific community that the research supporting the current Australian trial does not support the trial moving into the clinic.
EDITORIAL NOTE – It is important for all readers of this post to appreciate that cell transplantation for Parkinson’s disease is still experimental. Anyone declaring otherwise (or selling a procedure based on this approach) should not be trusted. While we appreciate the desperate desire of the Parkinson’s community to treat the disease ‘by any means possible’, bad or poor outcomes at the clinical trial stage for this technology could have serious consequences for the individuals receiving the procedure and negative ramifications for all future research in the stem cell transplantation area.
The banner for today’s post is of a scan of a brain after surgery. Source: Bionews-tx