Restorative hydrogel offers hope for Parkinson's patients

Friday, 06 August, 2021

Restorative hydrogel offers hope for Parkinson's patients

Researchers from the Australian National University (ANU), in collaboration with The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, have developed a new type of hydrogel that could radically transform how we treat Parkinson’s disease as well as other neurological conditions such as strokes. Their breakthrough has been published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

The new material is made from natural amino acids — the building blocks of proteins — and acts as a gateway to facilitate the safe transfer of stem cells into the brain and restore damaged tissue by releasing a growth-enabling protein called GDNF. By putting the stem cells into a gel, they are exposed to less stress when injected into the brain and are more gently and successfully integrated.

“When we shake or apply energy to the hydrogel, the substance turns into a liquid, which allows us to inject it into the brain through a very small capillary using a needle,” said Professor David Nisbet, from ANU’s John Curtin School of Medical Research.

“Once inside the brain, the gel returns to its solid form and provides support for the stem cells to replace lost dopamine neurons.”

Professor Clare Parish, Head of the Stem Cells and Neural Development Laboratory at The Florey Institute, added, “Through use of the hydrogel technique, we demonstrated increased survival of the grafted dopamine neurons and restored movement in an animal model of Parkinson’s disease.”

Prof Parish explained that although dopamine-related drugs are a readily used treatment for people living with Parkinson’s disease, many have undesirable side effects that are exacerbated with time. “The stem cell transplant delivered in this hydrogel on the other hand avoids many of these side effects and could provide a one-off intervention that can sustain dopamine levels for decades to come.”

Prof Nisbet said the hydrogel also has the potential to treat patients who have suffered a stroke and could even be used to treat damaged knees or shoulders, following successful animal trials. He noted, “When we introduced the gel technology with the stem cells, we saw huge improvement in the animals’ coordinated paw movement and overall motor function recovery.”

The hydrogel technology is said to be cost-effective and easy to manufacture on a mass scale, so it is hoped that treatment could soon be made available in hospitals. But first, it must undergo clinical trials.

“We must do our due diligence and ensure we check all the right boxes regarding safety, efficacy and regulatory approval before we can take this technology into the clinic, but we hope it can be available for use in the not-too-distant future,” Prof Parish said.

Image caption: Professor David Nisbet. Image credit: Jamie Kidston/ANU.

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