Getting to the bottom of Parkinson’s disease

New research co-operation examines causes using stem cells

FAU researchers and colleagues from all over Bavaria have joined forces to find the causes of Parkinson’s disease. They are using one of the most innovative biotechnologies of recent times: they program adult body cells back to the stem cell stage and grow nerve cells from them. The Bavarian state government will support this research project of the interdisciplinary research co-operation ForIPS – ‘Human induced pluripotent stem cells’ with approximately four million euros over the next four years.
Parkinson’s patients suffer from akinesia as well as uncontrollable shaking and increased muscular tension. Nerve cells in their brains that produce the important neurotransmitter dopamine die off. In some patients, a gene controls the onset of the disease. However, many fall ill without a genetic defect being detected. Medical experts hypothesise that the metabolism of the nerve cells is defective in these patients. ForIPS researchers want to use this as their starting point for examining which mechanisms in nerve cells contribute to the development of the disease.

They are using cutting-edge biotechnology to do so: researchers program mature cells from an adult human body back into stem cells. Stem cells are seen as the most powerful cells in the body. They are versatile all-rounders that can develop into or be grown into any type of specialised cell – heart or liver cells, white blood cells or nerve cells. In 2012, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for this discovery as it introduces countless possibilities for medical research – and it removes the ethical burden since the stem cells no longer need to be harvested from embryos.

The researchers of the research co-operative ForIPS want to take stromal cell samples from the skin of Parkinson’s patients and then grow them into nerve cells via the stem cell stadium in a petri dish. This complex procedure is necessary as it is not ethically justifiable to take nerve cell samples directly from a patient’s brain. These unprogrammed cells will then have the same traits – and defects – as the nerve cells of the Parkinson’s patient in question.

Using these samples, the researchers are able to examine which mechanisms truly cause the disease. This approach allows for advanced research into the individual’s pathogenesis and possible interventions. Furthermore, a biorepository has been started at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen, storing cell samples and making them available to other researchers.

ForIPS is an interdisciplinary co-operative between researchers of medicine, biology and ethics from the universities or university hospitals of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Munich (LMU and TUM), Regensburg and Würzburg. The speaker of the research co-operation is Prof. Dr. Jürgen Winkler, head of the Department of Molecular Neurology and of the Hereditary Movement Disorders Clinic.

Further information:

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Winkler
Phone: +49 (0)9131 85 39323

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