Jan. 4, 1999 LOS ANGELES (December 29, 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. Using molecular biology technology, scientists have developed specialized neuronal cells ready to be transplanted for certain neurological conditions.
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 neurosurgeon Michel Levesque, M.D., Director of the Neurofunctional Surgery Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Dr. Levesque's partner in the work is Toomas Neuman, Ph.D., Director of Neurobiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The two are working to culture a number of carefully targeted brain cells from a patient, stimulating the cell's growth and regeneration in a regulated environment. They will then re-introduce the cells into the patient, where the goal is for growth to continue, effecting healing and repairing damaged brain tissue.
The current plan involves selective cell harvesting and implantation to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's Disease. An infinitely more complex protocol for treating stroke and spinal cord injuries is in development.
This protocol will involve identifying, growing and re-introducing a complex mixture of cells to restore damaged neural circuitry. For example, in treating epilepsy patients who require surgery, a small piece of the cortex -- where some of the few brain cells capable of regeneration are located - is removed. The cells are frozen and stored in a cell bank of neurons until it is time to grow them in petri dishes.
Dr. Levesque is the lead surgeon and growth stimulation is under the direction of Dr. Neuman. The cells are removed and placed in a special environment to stimulate growth and division. "The cells don't spontaneously regenerate in the body -- that's why certain types of brain injuries and illnesses are currently incurable or irreparable," says Dr. Neuman. "Our eventual goal is to be able to stimulate the cells without removing them first."
A variety of molecular biology tools is used to identify and stimulate the cells. The growing cells, which require a sterile, biologically stable environment, are placed in incubators -- like baby incubators. They are then placed in a special bath that includes different growth factors. Both the stable environment and the bath containing the growth factors are required.
Dr. Levesque and Dr. Neuman are collaborating with NeuroGeneration, a new biotechnology firm in Los Angeles, which is providing the cells. Funding for this research was supported in part by the Spinal Cord Society.
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