Last year, Johns Hopkins University scientists announced that they had cultured laboratory-grown brain cells--marking the first time anyone had been able to coax neurons to grow outside the body. Now, Nova Pharmaceutical Corp. in Baltimore has licensed these cell lines and hopes to implant genetically modified versions in humans to treat Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.
The tremors and loss of muscle control in Parkinson's stem from a degeneration of neurons in the brain that produce the chemical dopamine. The most promising research in the past has involved transplanting fetal brain cells into the brains of severely affected patients. But under pressure from anti-abortionists, the federal government has banned funding for fetal cell research. Nova researchers think they have a better idea: splicing genes that produce the precursor to dopamine into the Hopkins brain cells. In rats, the cells thrive and connect with other neurons in the brain. In a few months, Nova researchers expect to have spliced genes for the enzyme that's missing in Alzheimer's patients into the neurons as well. The first human tests for both these treatments could begin in two years.