Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a chronic, progressive disorder of the central nervous system caused by a loss of dopamine producing cells in a section of the brain called the substantia nigra. Dopamine loss causes nerve cells in the brain to fire out of control, making it very difficult for people with PD to control their movement. Symptoms of PD include tremors, limb and trunk rigidity, difficulty maintaining balance and gait, and general slowness of movement. Individuals with PD may experience difficulty completing even simple tasks, such as talking and walking.
Approximately 1.5 million people in the United States suffer from PD, with 60,000 new cases diagnosed annually. The course of the disease and its symptoms differ from patient to patient – some patients have relatively few symptoms for many years, while others have severe cases that leave them with little or no mobility in just a few years.
A cure for PD remains elusive. Drugs have been developed to help patients manage many of the symptoms, but they do not stop the disease from progressing. It is now believed that most cases of PD result from a confluence of several factors, including environmental exposures and genetics.
Numerous studies are under way to explore the therapeutic potential of stem cells at multiple levels of analysis. Waisman Center investigator Su-Chun Zhang, MD, PhD conducts rigorous pre-clinical research involving the use of animal models of PD.
Zhang’s research focuses on establishing stem cells from PD patients to uncover the process of dopamine neuron degeneration; guiding human stem cells to dopamine nerve cells to develop potential cell therapies for PD; and developing personalized regenerative therapy for PD. Following successful studies in Petri dishes and in rodents, Zhang is exploring pre-clinical investigations by establishing stem cells from PD monkey’s skin, coaxing the stem cells into dopamine nerve cells, and transplanting the nerve cells back to the PD monkeys. The ultimate goal of this reseasrch to translate this technology to clinical application in PD patients.
Parkinson’s Disease Resources