Researchers have taken a step toward personalized medicine for Parkinson's disease, by investigating signs of the disease in patient-derived cells and testing how the cells respond to drug treatments. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
The researchers collected skin cells from patients with genetically inherited forms of Parkinson's and reprogrammed those cells into neurons. They found that neurons derived from individuals with distinct types of Parkinson's showed common signs of distress and vulnerability - in particular, abnormalities in the cellular energy factories known as mitochondria. At the same time, the cells' responses to different treatments depended on the type of Parkinson's each patient had.
The results were published in Science Translational Medicine.
"These findings suggest new opportunities for clinical trials of Parkinson's disease, in which cell reprogramming technology could be used to identify the patients most likely to respond to a particular intervention," said Margaret Sutherland, Ph.D., a program director at NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
A consortium of researchers conducted the study with primary funding from NINDS. The consortium is led by Ole Isacson, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of neurology at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
The NINDS consortium's first goal was to transform the patients' skin cells into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are adult cells that have been reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells. The consortium researchers then used a combination of growth conditions and growth-stimulating molecules to coax these iPS cells into becoming neurons, including the type that die in Parkinson's disease.
Parkinson's disease affects a number of brain regions, including a motor control area of the brain called the substantia nigra. There, it destroys neurons that produce the chemical dopamine. Loss of these neurons leads to involuntary shaking, slowed movements, muscle stiffness and other symptoms. Medications can help manage the symptoms, but there is no treatment to slow or stop the disease.
Most cases of Parkinson's are sporadic, meaning that the cause is unknown. However, genetics plays a strong role. There are 17 regions of the genome with common variations that affect the risk of developing Parkinson's disease. Researchers have also identified nine genes that, when mutated, can cause the disease.
Dr. Isacson and his collaborators derived iPS cells from five people with genetic forms of Parkinson's disease. By focusing on genetic cases, rather than sporadic cases, they hoped they would have a better chance of seeing patterns in the disease process and in treatment responses. Three of the individuals had mutations in a gene called LRRK2, and two others were siblings who had mutations in the gene PINK1. The researchers also derived iPS cells from two of the siblings' family members who did not have Parkinson's or any known mutations linked to it.