Innovative stem cell gel offers new approach for Parkinson’s disease

Stem cell researchers from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental have partnered with engineers from The Australian National University (ANU) to develop and study a new type of hydrogel that could radically transform a novel stem cell treatment for Parkinson’s disease.

Professor Clare Parish

Professor Clare Parish, Head of the Stem Cell and Neural Development Laboratory, who led the research out of the Florey Institute commented on the study’s findings.

“Through use of the hydrogel technique we demonstrated increased survival of the grafted dopamine neurons and restored movement in an animal model of Parkinson’s Disease,” said Prof Parish.

The new hydrogel is made from natural amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – and acts as a gateway to facilitate the safe transfer of stem cells into the brain and restore damaged tissue by releasing a growth-enabling protein called GDNF.

By delivering the stem cells within a gel, the cells are exposed to less stress and can be more gently and successfully integrated.

“When we shake or apply energy to the hydrogel, the substance turns into a liquid which allows us to transplant it into the brain through a very small capillary using a needle. Once inside the brain, the gel returns to its solid form and provides support for the stem cells to replace lost dopamine neurons,” said Professor David Nisbet from the ANU John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR).

Although dopamine-related drugs are a readily used treatment for people living with Parkinson’s disease, many have undesirable side-effects that are exacerbated with time.

“The stem cell transplant delivered in this hydrogel on the other hand avoids many of these side effects and could provide a one-off intervention that can sustain dopamine levels for decades to come,” explained Prof Parish.

The hydrogel technology is cost-effective and easy to manufacture on a mass scale. It is hoped the treatment could soon be made available in hospitals, but it must first undergo clinical trials.

“We must do our due diligence and ensure we check all the right boxes regarding safety, efficacy and regulatory approval before we can take this technology into the clinic, but we hope it can be available for use in the not-too-distant future,” Professor Parish said.

The study has been published in Advanced Functional Materials.

The research was funded by the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council and Stem Cells Australia.