Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Digging for a cure at the Oxford Parkinson's Disease Centre (OPDC) - Part 1

How do you find a cure for Parkinson's?

Imagine you travel to a field in the middle of the countryside. You've been told there is something buried in the field; something valuable beyond words, like a cure for Parkinson's. The problem is, you don't know where in the field the cure resides or how deep you will have to dig for it. You also don't know what a cure will look like. You stand in the middle of the field trying to decide where to start. How do you find a cure for Parkinson's?

You gather a team of expert diggers and based on what other researchers have found in nearby fields (and for other diseases) you choose an area in the middle of the field. You start digging and go through several layers of soil. As you dig you analyse the components of the soil for any traces of the cure. That's the difficulty of scientific research; because you are attempting to uncover something hidden from view you only have knowledge from previous layers of soil to go on; you try to make sure as far as you can that the particular part of the field you are currently studying will hold the vital clue to where to dig next, or how far you will have to dig down to get to a cure.

What is the OPDC?

I arrived at a particular part of the Parkinson's research field when I visited the lab of Dr Richard Wade-Martins at the Oxford Parkinson's Disease Centre (OPDC). The OPDC is an interdisciplinary research centre, which means that clinicians (investigating better ways to diagnose and treat Parkinson's), brain scientists (investigating the nerve cell networks that go wrong), cell biologists (investigating what goes wrong in cells) and, linking these approaches together, mouse geneticists (investigating Parkinson's in mice) are under one roof. This ensures the links between human patients and the knowledge generated from cells, nerve cell networks and model organisms is as close as possible. In other words, they are busying digging in multiple parts of the Parkinson's field and increasing the chances of finding that vital clue.

From skin cells to nerve cells - Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (IPSCs)

Dr Wade-Martin's lab investigates cells and mouse models of Parkinson's. The first part of the field I was shown contained some amazing biology. Researchers in the lab know enough to take skin cells from human patients and convert these into nerve cells, which are the same as those cells that go wrong in Parkinson’s affected brains. I will just let that sink in. Look at your skin...the tissue that covers your body can be changed into nerve cells! Amazing! These cells are incredibly valuable because they contain all the genetic changes (known and unknown) that cause Parkinson's. Therefore, understanding and treating what goes wrong in these nerve cells will give a more comprehensive view of what goes wrong in Parkinson’s. Studies using these cells will be a huge leap forward in understanding and treating human patients.

Dopamine producing nerve cells (green cells) created from the skin cells of Parkinson's patients. Amazing!

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