Japanese scientists have just been given permission from the government to begin clinical trials for “reprogrammed” stem cells as a means of curing Parkinson’s disease.

The devastating disease is caused by a lack of cells in the brain that produce dopamine, which is an essential neurotransmitter in the brain. The decrease in dopamine causes trembling, a decline in motor functions, and – if the disease progresses – dementia.

The researchers plan on reversing the disease by using donated adult stem cells that have been taken from another patient so they can then  “reprogram” them into embryonic cells. These reprogrammed embryonic cells, which are called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, can then be developed into dopamine-producing neurons.

Scientists have expressed concern that the application of these cells would result in malignant tumors. Last year, however, the research team from Kyoko University successfully used iPS cells to restore normal brain function in monkeys without any sign of tumors over the course of the 2-year study.

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“This will be the world’s first clinical trial using iPS cells on Parkinson’s disease,” said Jun Takahashi, professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for iPS Cell Research and Application.

“We intend to carry on conducting our research carefully, yet expeditiously, in coordination with Kyoto University Hospital, so that new treatment using iPS cells will be brought to patients as soon as possible,” said Shinya Yamanaka, the scientist who won the Nobel Prize for discovering iPS cells.

The researchers will be recruiting seven Parkinson’s patients for the trial.

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