Human-pig cell transplant trial approved

BRONWYN TORRIE
Last updated 05:00 05/10/2012

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A potential cure for Parkinson's disease involving pig cells being put into a person's brain has gained approval to be tested in humans for the first time.

Health Minister Tony Ryall gave Living Cell Technologies the go-ahead yesterday to test the safety and clinical effect of NTCELL in New Zealand.

Ethical approval is the next hurdle, but the company's chief executive, Andrea Grant, is confident the trial will get under way next year.

"This trial is an interesting one from an ethical standpoint, the reason being when you look from the outside at all the trial design - which is to take the neuron cells from the pig brain, encapsulate them and place them inside the patient's brain via a catheter - you think 'wow, that's all very radical'," Dr Grant said.

"But when you break each of the steps out, each one has been done before."

The NTCELL process was successfully tested in rats and monkeys. Brain cells from Auckland Island pigs were used as they could help protect the brain and repair damaged nerve tissue, Dr Grant said.

“The unprecedented results of our preclinical studies suggest that NTCELL can protect brain tissue which would otherwise die, potentially delaying or even preventing the effects of Parkinson's.”

The ultimate goal for this research was a cure, she said.

About 10,000 New Zealanders have Parkinson's, which is the second-most-common neurodegenerative disorder worldwide, after Alzheimer's.

Reduced dopamine levels in the brain lead to symptoms such as tremor, rigidity and slowness of movement.

The effectiveness of current treatments, which focus on dopamine replacement, declines as the disease progresses. There is no way to reverse or slow the degeneration of the brain.

Parkinson's New Zealand chief executive Deirdre O'Sullivan said the trial was "really exciting", but "like any new research we're always a bit cautious".

"Obviously any step from animal model to a human trial is massive and it shows that there's a lot of work, research and belief behind it to get to this stage. There's thousands of trials that never get past the petrie dish."

She said it won't be hard to find four people in the late stages of the disease to take part, as a large proportion of sufferers were willing to be involved in new research.

Dr Barry Snow, who leads the Auckland Movement Disorders Clinic, is the principal investigator for the trial, which is expected to take 18 months.

He also said the trial was "exciting" as it could open the door to new options for treating Parkinson's.

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Dr Grant said the people taking part in the trial would need to have had Parkinson's for four years.

This procedure is similar to the NTCELL treatment, but instead of putting electrodes on the brian, the pig cells are inserted.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN

B rain cells from the disease-free Auckland Island pig herd will be transplanted into a person's brain via a catheter.

When transplanted, the naturally occurring "support" cells may help protect the brain and repair damaged nerve tissue.

The cells will be encapsulated with a substance to prevent rejection. Living Cell Technologies chief executive Andrea Grant said that unlike previous trials, this one would put a "mixture of different neurons" into the dead part of the brain.

"We're encouraging all of these different cell types to grow back, rather than just one."

Four people will receive the pig cells, which help produce cerebrospinal fluid as well as nerve growth factors. They will be assessed every two weeks.

At six months they will have a brain scan to see if there are any changes at the cellular level.

Clinicians will then decide what to do: another implant, deep brain stimulation or nothing.

This will be followed up by another scan at 12 months.

- The Dominion Post

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