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Germany

New Parkinson’s Treatment Shows Promise

Clinics in Germany, the United States and Spain are testing a promising new cell treatment for Parkinson’s that has eradicated major symptoms of the disease in eight patients.

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Dopamine producing implant cells show promise in treating an immobilizing illness.

Georg Schuler used to tremble terribly. The shakes would come and go uncontrollably, as if his brain had lost contact with his body.

"During the ‘on’ times, I was totally normal, I could move freely, like normal," Schuler said. "But in the ‘off’ times, I became so stiff that I couldn’t move any more. This shift from ‘on’ to ‘off’ could happen literally within a minute or a half-minute. The ‘off’ times kept lasting longer and happening more often and the ‘on’ times were getting shorter and less frequent."

That all changed recently, after Schuler underwent an experimental new treatment that has shown great promise for patients with Parkinson’s Disease. Now, many of the disease’s effects have subsided, and Schuler has been given a new lease on life.

New promise

Schuler is one of eight patients around the world who participated in a test of the new treatment, which involved the replacement of the stabilizing dopamine hormone in the brain and which reversed the most serious side-effects of Parkinson’s in many who participated.

"With this new procedure, we attempt to implant dopamine-producing cells directly into the brain – in other words, they are being deployed so that dopamine can again be produced by cells where they are needed," said Dr. Gerhard Fuss of the neurological clinic at the University of Homburg in Germany, one of the institutions taking part in the trials.

The procedure involves extracting the healthy cells from the retina of an organ donor. Since the cells are neither genetically modified nor taken from embryos, they aren’t subject to the ethical controversies of many cell therapies. In trials, the cells have also shown that they don’t grow uncontrollably and, so far, there haven’t been problems with patients’ bodies rejecting them.

It’s a promising procedure that could turn the world of Parkinson’s treatment upside-down if early trials are replicated in wider tests. So far, the procedure has only been tested on eight patients world wide, but the limited results have been extremely promising.

"We’ve seen a marked improvement in a patient affected by Parkinson’s disease during the first two years after the operation," Fuss said. "In other words, the patients have considerably more movement and shake less." He also said the regiment of medications required by patients who had undergone the treatment became starkly reduced after the procedure.

Previously, patients had the option of taking dopamine pills, which don’t affect the brain immediately and can result in undesired side effects. Otherwise, they had the option of another implant: the so-called "deep brain stimulator," which fights the effects of Parkinson’s but can also come with unpleasant side effects including vision loss or sensory abnormalities.

A haywire CNS

Experts are hoping that the new treatment will provide a better option for patients than previous measures and lead to an ultimate victory over one of the most destructive and debilitating of diseases.

The main effect of Parkinson's is that patients lose control of their bodies because of a serious reduction of the dopamine levels in their brains. The neurotransmitter regulates the functioning of the central nervous system, and without it, nerves begin to fire out of control, causing a patient’s control of bodily movements to go haywire.

"If this neurotransmitter is lacking, it can often lead to a slowing of movement," said Fuss. The clinical term is medical akinesia, or impaired muscle movement, he said. It can also cause a patient to shake or tremble. As the disease progresses, motor function in patients deteriorates.

Six clinics in Germany, four in the United States and two in Spain are participating in an expanded study and are currently seeking patients.

But patients face a difficult choice. They can go for the proven treatments, which make day-to-day life more liveable but do not stop the progression of the disease, or they can opt for the new, but unproven therapy that has shown promise in Parkinson’s sufferers but whose effects have not been studied over a longer period of time.

For some, like Georg Schuler, the decision was easy. Schuler said he began to improve dramatically within two weeks of undergoing the new procedure.

"Now I’m very calm," he said. "My body doesn’t go into spasms any more. I used to have a lot of spasms, but now my body can hear every command I give it. I can get up any time. I can go. I can stop. I can do whatever I want."