Scientists from the University of Western Ontario and the Lawson Health Research Institute have successfully grown large numbers of patients' own brain cells following a small biopsy.
And not only are these cells "healthy," but also they demonstrate a number of powerful attributes to protect and preserve the brain from future injury, toxins and disease.
Scientists from the Departments of Clinical Neurological Sciences, Oncology and Otolaryngology at the University of Western Ontario hope that ultimately these cells can be cultivated in a laboratory to yield specific cell types needed for a particular treatment.
Dr. Matthew O. Hebb, one of the researchers on the study, explained:
"It is our hope that the results of this study provide a footing for further advancement of personalized, cell-based treatments for currently incurable and devastating neurological disorders."
Crossing the 'blood-brain barrier'
These patient-specific cells may also be able to cross the "blood-brain barrier" by expressing specific therapeutic agents that are released directly into the brain.
The "blood-brain barrier" restricts the passage of substances from the bloodstream to the brain, protecting the brain from many common bacterial infections. While this means that brain infections are very rare, they are often very serious and difficult to treat.
Scientists are exploring ways of bypassing this barrier, as it represents a major challenge to the treatment of most brain disorders.
Dr. Gerald Weissmann, editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) echoed the significance of this discovery:
"For centuries, treating the brain effectively and safely has been elusive. This advance opens the doors to not only new therapies for a myriad of brain diseases, but new ways of delivering therapies as well."
Scientists can now grow brain cells in the laboratory for possible reintegration into the patient to combat neurological conditions, such as Parkinson's disease.
Researchers for the study enrolled patients with Parkinson's disease who were scheduled to have deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery, a commonly used procedure that involves placing electrodes into the brain.
Before the electrodes were implanted, small biopsies were removed near the surface of the brain. These were multiplied in culture to generate millions of patient-specific cells that were then subjected to genetic analysis.
These cells were complex in their make-up but exhibited regeneration and characteristics of a fundamental class of brain cells, called glia. They expressed a broad array of natural and potent protective agents, called neurotrophic factors.
Dr. Hebb continued:
"This work is an example of how integrating basic science and clinical care may reveal privileged opportunities for biomedical research."
The fact that a small biopsy yields an expandable source of the patient's own cells is also significant.
As Dr. Weissmann says, "From an extremely small amount of brain tissue, we will one day be able to do very big things."