Researchers at the Australian National University (ANU), in collaboration with colleagues at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, have developed a revolutionary new treatment for Parkinson’s disease based on stem cells embedded in a hydrogel. The new method can also be used to treat patients suffering from other neurological conditions, such as strokes.
The research results were published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.
The hydrogel used in the new therapy is created from natural amino acids, the main constituent of proteins, and mimics the cellular environment. It reduces the stress level of stem cells during transplantation into the brain and promotes their successful engraftment.
In the brain, stem cells differentiate into dopamine neurons and repair damaged tissues by releasing the neuropeptide GDNF (glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor), promoting differentiation and maintaining various central and peripheral nervous system cell populations.
«When we shake or apply energy to the hydrogel, the substance turns into a liquid which allows us to inject it into the brain through a very small capillary using a needle», – Professor David Nisbet, from the ANU John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR), said. «Once inside the brain, the gel returns to its solid form and provides support for the stem cells to replace lost dopamine neurons».
Professor Clare Parish, Head of the Stem Cell and Neural Development Laboratory at The Florey Institute, said:
«Through the use of the hydrogel technique, we demonstrated increased survival of the grafted dopamine neurons and restored movement in an animal model of Parkinson’s disease».
Although dopamine-related drugs are widely used to treat people with Parkinson’s disease, many of them have unwanted side effects that get worse over time.
«The stem cell transplant delivered in this hydrogel, on the other hand, avoids many of these side effects and could provide a one-off intervention that can sustain dopamine levels for decades to come», – Professor Parish said.
Prof Nisbet says the hydrogel may also help treat stroke patients. In addition, after successful animal testing, it may even be used to treat knee or shoulder injuries.
«When we introduced the gel technology with the stem cells, we saw a huge improvement in the animals’ coordinated paw movement and overall motor function recovery», – he said.
The technology for using this hydrogel is cost-effective and easy to mass-produce. It is hoped that the treatment will soon become available in hospitals, but it must first undergo clinical trials.
«We must do our due diligence and ensure we check all the right boxes regarding safety, efficacy, and regulatory approval before we can take this technology into the clinic, but we hope it can be available for use in the not-too-distant future», – Professor Parish said.