Purpose of review
The hallmark pathologic feature of Parkinson's disease is loss of melanized dopaminergic neurons within the substantia nigra pars compacta coupled with depletion of striatal dopamine. This is responsible for the major motor features of the disease. Whereas dopaminergic replacement therapy is effective in the early stages of the illness, chronic treatment is associated with motor complications and development of features that do not respond to levodopa therapy. Development of cellular therapies offers the potential to provide more effective treatment for the disease without motor complications.
Two clinical trials of fetal nigral transplantation failed to meet their primary endpoint and were complicated by the development of dyskinesia that persisted after withdrawal of levodopa (‘off-medication’ dyskinesia). However, recent studies suggest that both the limited clinical response and off-medication dyskinesia may be related to partial, but incomplete, dopaminergic reinnervation of the striatum and that both might be improved by transplantation of more dopamine neurons. Stem cells offer the potential to provide a virtually unlimited supply of optimized dopaminergic neurons that can provide enhanced benefits in comparison to fetal mesencephalic transplants. Stem cells have now been shown to be capable of differentiating into dopamine neurons that provide benefits following transplantation in animal models of Parkinson's disease. However, cell survival and behavioral responses are limited. There have been numerous advances in enhancing the yield of dopamine neurons from stem cells, and promoting their survival and consequent clinical effects.
Stem cells offer great promise as a therapy for Parkinson's disease, but numerous hurdles remain to be overcome with stem cell therapy. The adverse event profile of transplantation must be determined, and societal and ethical issues addressed. As Parkinson's disease involves degeneration of both dopaminergic and non-dopaminergic neurons, it also remains to be determined if transplantation of even the ideal dopamine neuron will improve non-dopaminergic features of the disease or provide benefits superior to existing therapies.