Although advances made by medical research in recent years have dramatically improved our understanding of Parkinson’s disease, a cure remains elusive and millions of people continue to suffer from its debilitating symptoms, ranging from movement loss to impaired speech, posture and balance.
However, there is now far less reason to despair than before, as armed with an arsenal of superior medicines and support services, doctors are being able to battle the disease far more effectively than they could hope to even a few years ago.
Having said this, in a country like India where even basic medical services are frightfully difficult to find in most parts, there appears to be little hope for huge masses of Parkinson patients in the near future.
Similarly, even as advances particularly in areas like stem cell therapy promise to lead to a cure, people in much younger 40-50 year age brackets too have been reporting the disease of late, meaning that PD could be expanding its footprint.
What is Parkinson’s?
It is a progressive neuro disorder caused by deficiency of dopamine – a chemical that transmits messages to those parts of the brain that control movement. The disease kills dopamine-producing nerve cells, or neurons, in a section of the brain called the substantia nigra. Parkinson’s is also linked to formation of abnormal clumps of a protein called Lewy bodies.The loss of this chemical shuts down the communication critical for motor functions and results in the disease that only gets worse with time. Patients develop tremors and rigidity, and their movements slow down. They might also lose their sense of smell or suffer from sleep disorders, depression, constipation and sometimes dementia in the later stages of the disease.
Still, there ismore to cheer than brood over, as its now clear that systematic management of the disease involving new medicines, timely surgery and follow up support including physiotherapy and speech and gait therapy combined with training of care givers can substantially improve the quality of life of a PD patient.
Drugs capable of arresting the progress of the disease and promoting the secretion of dopamine in the brain have now emerged as have advances that are helping doctors treat and even reverse some causes of the disease. Nothing, however, has stirred as much hope for a cure as the latest news coming from the frontiers of stem cells research.
How could stem cells help?
Although the underlying cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, scientists do know which cells and areas of the brain are involved. Researchers are already using stem cells to grow dopamine-producing nerve cells in labs to enable them to study the disease. Because a single, well-defined type of cell is affected, it may also be possible to treat Parkinson’s by replacing the lost nerve cells with healthy new ones.
Stem cell treatments for Parkinson’s are still in the early stages of development. Some of the most important recent advances include work on methods for making dopamine-producing neurons in the lab; research on how to improve the effectiveness of transplants and avoid side effects; and studies investigating how the disease works and how cells can help with the development of new drugs.So far, researchers have had most success making dopamine-producing neurons from embryonic stem cells, but it is not yet clear whether the lab-grown neurons are close enough to naturally produced neurons to succeed in therapies.
These stem cells are also known to modulate the immune system there by slowing the progress of the disease.