Tuesday April 4 2:45 AM ET
By Wendy Pugh
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian scientists said on Tuesday they had succeeded in developing nerve cells from early human embryos which could lead to a cure for Parkinson's disease and a range of other health problems.
The Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development said its research team was the first to achieve the controlled, laboratory development of nerve cells from embryonic stem cells.
"We hope that one day we will be able to produce pure populations of specific types of nerve cells that could be used for screening new medicines or for transplantation to correct specific diseases," senior research fellow Martin Pera said.
"So for instance, if we made dopamine-producing nerve cells, those can potentially be used to treat Parkinson's disease."
Embryonic stem cells are building blocks which can turn into virtually any type of cell in the body.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter linked with movement, attention span and certain bodily sensations. Parkinson's disease, an incurable and fatal brain disease, results when cells that usually produce dopamine die.
The Monash team worked in conjunction with the National University of Singapore and Hadassah Medical Center, where the cells used in the research were developed from human embryos.
The researchers said one of the problems facing scientists worldwide had been to find a way to develop specific types of cells from the master stem cells and then harness their medical potential.
The Monash center described its achievement as a major breakthrough in the fight to use stem cells therapeutically.
"What we are doing is isolating precursors of nerve cells from the embryonic stem cell cultures, growing them on and then getting them to turn into mature nerves," Pera told Reuters. "We are the first to show you can do that in a controlled fashion."
The University of Wisconsin reported in 1998 that it had isolated and grown human embryonic stem cells, leading to the potential for them to be used therapeutically.
Monash had been working along the same lines and in 1999 focused on characterizing the nerve cells that were coming out of the stem cell cultures.
Pera said clinical use of the technology would hinge on how well scientists could manipulate the cells, how quickly they could produce pure populations of specific cell types and evidence that the cells would function effectively in the body.
"I think you will see a lot more effort worldwide in this area," he said.
The treatment of Parkinson's, Alzheimer's disease, strokes and degenerative heart disorders were among a wide range of potential medical applications for stem cell biotechnology.
It could also lead to a better understanding of early childhood development disorders and the testing of new medicines could be hastened with the availability of populations of specific cells.
"You would then have a very powerful resource, more powerful than animal
testing for the development of drugs," Pera said.