Nov. 2, 1998 LOS ANGELES (October 30, 1998) -- While growing cells in petri dishes has been done for more than a century, this old technique is being applied in ground-breaking new ways, and with space-age equipment, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center's Neurofunctional Surgery Center. The goal is to produce cures for such previously incurable conditions as spinal cord injuries, stroke, epilepsy, and Parkinson's disease.
The project was sparked by the recent discovery of human brain cells' potential for regeneration, contradicting previous scientific assumptions. "While it is true that brain cells don't regenerate in situ, we have found that a very small number of brain cells, harvested and placed into a special environment, can be stimulated to regenerate, and that regeneration continues when the cells are re-introduced into the brain," says Michel Levesque, M.D., Director of the Neurofunctional Surgery Center and an internationally known neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Toomas Neuman, Ph.D., Director of Neurobiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and Dr. Levesque are working together to culture a number of carefully targeted brain cells from a patient, stimulating growth and regeneration in a carefully regulated environment, and then re-introducing them into the patient, where the growth continues, and effects healing and repair to previously irreparably damaged brain tissue.
"The implications of this are enormous. Right now we will use cell harvesting and implantation to treat Parkinson's disease," says Dr. Levesque. "Treating neurodegenerative diseases involving one type of neurotransmitter cells is comparatively straightforward - introducing excitatory neurons or inhibitory neurons, into a particular part of the brain. In other words, one type of cell to one location.
"Treating stroke and spinal cord injuries with regenerated cells is infinitely more complex," says Dr. Levesque. We have to identify, grow, and re-introduce a complex mixture of cells to restore a damaged circuitry. We're working on a human protocol for spinal cord injury now, and hope to start treating patients with regenerated cells within the next six months."
The process literally starts with brain surgery, says Dr. Levesque. "For epilepsy patients who require surgery, we take a small piece of the cortex, where some of the few brain cells capable of regeneration are located. We remove a few of those cells, store them in our cell bank of neurons, and freeze them until we're ready to grow them in petri dishes.
Dr. Neuman oversees the growth stimulation part of the project. "Right now we have to remove the cells and put them into a special environment to stimulate them to begin growing and dividing. Our goal is to eventually be able to stimulate the cells without removing them first," says Dr. Neuman. "The cells don't spontaneously regenerate in the body -- that's why certain types of brain injuries and illnesses are currently incurable or irreparable.
"A variety of molecular biology tools are used to identify and stimulate the cells," says Dr. Neuman. "We have to keep the growing cells in sterile, biologically stable incubators -- like baby incubators -- to maintain a constant environment. When we're ready to grow them, we put them into a special bath that includes different growth factors. Without either one, the cells don't regenerate. If you have all the necessary things they divide and grow. If you don't have them, these little guys die," he adds.
"The work we're doing is based on solid scientific foundations. It began years ago, with studies indicating that certain types of birds could produce brain cells that would regenerate in the right circumstances. The studies moved from birds to animals. The progression from animal brain cell regeneration to human brain cell regeneration is the next logical step. When I began working with Dr. Levesque we discovered we had a common interest -- our working together actually stimulated the project," says Dr. Neuman.
"When we finish developing our protocol, we'll be the first to offer this treatment for stroke and spinal cord injuries," says Dr. Levesque. "We have a lot of spinal cord injury patients who are interested in this type of treatment." The human protocol is scheduled to be completed in six months, at which time cell regeneration and re-introduction treatments can begin on humans.
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