New technique for Parkinson’s stem cell brain repair brings promise for patients

Professor Eilís Dowd, College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at University of Galway. Credit Martina Regan.
Mar 19 2024 Posted: 10:46 GMT

Research funded by The Michael J. Fox Foundation uses hydrogel to improve therapy


Foundation awards grant support for further development of hydrogel following results 


Neuroscientists at University of Galway have made an exciting discovery that could revolutionise stem cell-based brain repair therapy for Parkinson’s disease. 

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative condition in which brain cells slowly degenerate and die leading to a progressive deterioration in a person’s ability to control movement. It is estimated that there are 8.5 million people living with the condition worldwide, and 12,000 people in Ireland alone. 

Brain repair for Parkinson’s involves replacing the dead cells by transplanting healthy brain cells back into the brain. With recent advancements in regenerative medicine and stem cell technology, “induced stem cells” can now be used as a source of healthy cells. 

Induced stem cells are reprogrammed from adult cells, such as skin cells, and can be converted in the laboratory into the appropriate type of brain cell required for repairing the Parkinson’s brain.  

However, these skin cells-turned brain cells need to be transplanted into the brain at a very early stage in their conversion, and the vast majority of the cells do not continue to convert -once in the brain - into the mature cells that are required for the therapy to work.  

In work funded by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF) and Science Foundation Ireland, published this week in the Journal of Neural Engineering, the team in the College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at University of Galway have shown that transplanting the immature cells in a collagen hydrogel dramatically improves both their survival and maturation in the brain.  

Commenting on the research finding, the lead neuroscientist on the project, Professor Eilís Dowd, said: “Our hydrogel nurtures, supports and protects the cells after they are transplanted into the brain, and this dramatically improves their maturation and reparative ability. Ultimately, we hope that continued development of this promising gel will lead to a significant improvement in brain repair approaches for people living with Parkinson’s.”

The Michael J. Fox Foundation awarded $300,000 to continue the development of the hydrogel.

The new research aims to understand how the immune system in the brain reacts when cells are transplanted alone versus when they are transplanted in combination with the hydrogel.

The research will continue to be led by Professor Dowd, in collaboration with colleagues from CÚRAM - the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Medical Devices based at University of Galway, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Melbourne.

Professor Dowd’s ongoing research in this field is featured in the short documentary Feats of Modest Valour which won the coveted Scientist Award at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York, as well as the Professional Documentary Award at the Raw Science Festival in California. 


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