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Stem Cells Grown From Brains of the Dead

Potential new source to treat Parkinson's

WEDNESDAY, May 2 (HealthScout) -- In a feat that once perhaps would have come out of Mary Shelley's imagination, neuroscientists have been able to grow stem cells from the brain tissue of dead people.

The research may be a step toward a radically new approach for treatment of neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease.

That approach would be to develop a regimen of chemicals that could be injected into the brains of patients, stimulating the growth of new cells to replace those whose death or malfunction causes the condition, says Fred H. Gage, a professor in the genetics laboratory of the Salk Institute, whose group reports the achievement in the May 3 issue of Nature.

That differs from the method being tried in a number of laboratories, which are developing methods of growing normal neurons -- brain cells -- from stem cells, primitive cells that have the ability to develop into almost any kind of specialized cells. The cultured neurons would then be transplanted into the brains of patients to replace the defective cells responsible for the problem.

It is an effort rife with controversy, because many efforts use stem cells isolated from discarded human embryos. Opponents of abortion have protested, and the federal government is reviewing policy on stem cell research. Some scientists now are working with stem cells from other sources.

It's too early to say how and whether the new approach will work, Gage says, but he notes that the finding is the latest surprise about the nature of adult brain cells. The first surprise was the upset of the standard theory that no new neurons could grow in the adult human brain.

"We showed a couple of years ago that the adult brain had dividing cells," Gage says. "Now we see that we can isolate living cells from adults and get them to grow in tissue culture."

Cells still divide

Most of the brain tissue used by Gage has been taken a few hours after death, although some samples have come from biopsies of patients undergoing surgery for neurological conditions.

"We work with a tissue brain bank that stores tissues for RNA and DNA analysis from children who die of neurogenetic diseases," Gage says. "We use a method developed for isolating brain cells from animals. We were surprised that under the conditions we established, we could grow the cells in tissue culture. There aren't many of these cells normally dividing, but we identified chemicals that stimulate the cells to divide."

Because dividing cells do exist in the adult brain, "we want to understand how to regulate those cells in tissue culture, so that we can regulate the cells that are inside the brain, rather than doing a transplant," Gage says. A lot of work must be done before that becomes feasible, he says.

The achievement thus far is impressive but limited, says Ronald D. G. McKay, chief of the laboratory of molecular biology at the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, a leading stem cell researcher.

"They are not making a big claim," McKay says. "They claim that they can get cells from the brains of human cadavers that function in some ways like stem cells. Looking at these cells in more detail will be important. They do have interesting properties, but it is not clear that they can be used for neurological diseases, in particular Parkinson's disease."

McKay is working with brain cells from adult mice and rats, trying to develop transplantable neurons. "The work is really moving ahead, but the rate of progress is slow," he says. "That is, it is moving fast by academic standards, but it will still take several years to see the outcome."

What To Do

Research on this basic level usually does not begin to have an effect on treatment of disease for several years, so don't expect any practical application anytime soon.

A primer on stem cells and their possible medical uses is available from the National Institutes of Health.

For a fictional (and much darker) take on turning the dead into the living, visit the Online Literature Library to read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus (1818).

Try other HealthScout articles about stem cell research.

SOURCES: Interviews with Fred H. Gage, Ph.D, professor of genetics, Salk Institute, La Jolla, Calif., and Ronald D. G. McKay, chief, laboratory of molecular biology, National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, Bethesda, Md.; May 3, 2001 Nature
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