A Guide to Stem Cell Therapy for Neurodegenerative Diseases

A Guide to Stem Cell Therapy for Neurodegenerative Diseases

Neurodegenerative diseases affect millions of people across the globe. Parkinson’s disease (PD) and Alzheimer’s disease are the two most common illnesses within this category, and as of 2016, more than five million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s disease alone. It’s estimated that the prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases will only increase in the coming years with the aging population. 

Characterized by the loss of function and death of nerve cells, neurodegenerative diseases cannot currently be cured. There are medications available to control symptoms, but patients don’t always respond to these drugs as desired. Moreover, there are often side effects which can further diminish patients’ health and wellbeing.

Stem Cells for Neurodegenerative Diseases

As a promising alternative to traditional medicine, stem cell therapy is being explored as a treatment for neurodegenerative conditions. These remarkable cells act as the basis from which every other differentiated cell type in the body is created. They can self-renew and transform into nearly any cell type. With these capabilities, researchers are finding that stem cells can repair damaged neurons, thus controlling the rate of disease. In some cases, it’s possible that stem cells could even reverse some of the damage already done. 

There are several different types of stem cells being investigated for neurodegenerative conditions, including:

  • Tissue-specific stem cells: These stem cells can give rise to multiple organ-specific cells and are typically located in areas of the body that can self-renew, including the skin and blood.
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSCs): MSCs are located within the bone marrow and can differentiate into several types of cells, including cartilage, bone, and muscle. They have strong self-renewing properties and are therefore an ideal candidate for tissue repair. 
  • Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs): iPSCs are artificially derived from adult cells and programmed back to pluripotency. This creates an unlimited source of any cell type. Although iPSCs have been used in developing medications and disease modeling, further research is needed to determine their efficacy in other types of treatment.
  • Neural Stem Cells (NSCs): NSCs are derived from specific areas of the brain and are thus considered specialized cells. Like other stem cells, they are self-renewing and multipotent. 

Stem Cells for Neurodegenerative Diseases

The research into how stem cells can help patients with neurodegenerative diseases is ongoing. With that being said, tremendous progress has already been made. In specific, stem cell therapy is being used to help treat the following conditions:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease: Columbia University researchers have discovered a groundbreaking process through which skin cells could be converted into brain cells. With further research, this process could help to create neurons which have been compromised by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. 
  • Parkinson’s Disease: PD patients experience a decline of dopamine as brain cells are destroyed. As dopamine levels drop, patients experience a range of challenging symptoms, including issues with movement and cognition. Recently, stem-cell derived dopaminergic neurons created through ESCs and iPSCs have emerged as a potential option for replacing compromised brain cells. 

ALS: ALS has puzzled researchers for decades, largely due to the inability to source motor neurons in large enough numbers for studying. Recently, however, Harvard researchers have acquired mature cells that can be manipulated back into stem cells from ALS patients, which could lay the foundation for studying new therapies. Contact a Care Coordinator today for a free assessment!

Mesenchymal Stem Cells and Neurodegenerative Diseases

Mesenchymal Stem Cells and Neurodegenerative Diseases

As the name suggests, neurodegenerative diseases are a disease of the nervous system in which nerve cells (i.e. neurons) become dysfunctional and die. As more nerve cells die, certain brain functions slow, change or stop. Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are examples of debilitating and even fatal neurodegenerative diseases. There are no cures for these diseases, but symptom management is the primary focus for patients seeking treatment options.

Neurodegenerative diseases are an attractive target for regenerative medicine. The approach makes sense intuitively; if brain cells are inflamed, dysfunctional, and dying, can mesenchymal stem cells be applied as a targeted approach so that they may differentiate into new brain cells and release all the helpful substances stem cells are known to release. Many researchers share this optimism and believe in the promise of stem cells as a treatment for neurodegenerative diseases. Indeed, Drs. Joyce and coauthors discuss what steps have already been taken to develop stem cells into a potential treatment for neurodegenerative diseases.

The authors describe scientific studies that show how mesenchymal stem cells “promote endogenous neuronal growth, decrease apoptosis and regulate inflammation.” In other words, stem cell transplantation supports nerve cell growth, decreases cell death, and reduces the damaging inflammation that is seen in some neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis.

According to the scientists, stem cells “can mediate modification of the damaged tissue microenvironment to enhance endogenous neural regeneration and protection.” This means that stem cells can make the area around the diseased brain more favorable to nerve cell growth and development. Stem cells create a protective environment for nerve cells to live and operate.

Clinical trials that study the effects of stem cells in neurodegenerative diseases are progressing. Some studies show that stem cells might be able to slow the rate at which muscle strength declines and are considered safe for those with ALS. Likewise, patients with Huntington’s disease showed motor and cognitive improvements two years after receiving a stem cell transplant into the damaged region of their brains. Moreover, stem cells transplanted into patients with Parkinson’s disease were found to be alive and well 10 years after transplantation. Perhaps more importantly for patients, stem cells provided relief of Parkinson’s disease symptoms.

As of now, stem cell treatments for neurodegenerative diseases can be directed to the targeted tissues with administration techniques such as intranasal or intrathecal injections to bypass the blood-brain barrier. While these injections have been shown time and again to be safe, patients and their providers must consider the process and their safety. Continued research is ongoing and those seeking an alternative option should do their research and discover how regenerative medicine may potentially help them manage their symptoms.

Reference: Joyce, N., et al. (2010). Mesenchymal stem cells for the treatment of neurodegenerative disease. Regenerative Medicine. 2010. Nov; 5(6): 933-946.

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