, Volume 16, Issue 6, pp 389-401
Date: 16 Aug 2012

Stem Cells for Neurodegenerative Disorders

Abstract

The use of stem cells in cell replacement therapy for neurodegenerative diseases has received a great deal of scientific and public interest in recent years. This is due to the remarkable pace at which paradigm-changing discoveries have been made regarding the neurogenic potential of embryonic, fetal, and adult cells.

Over the last decade, clinical fetal tissue transplants have demonstrated that dopaminergic neurons can survive long term and provide functional clinical benefits for patients with Parkinson’s disease. Pluripotent embryonic stem cells and multipotent neural stem cells may provide renewable sources that could replace these primary fetal grafts. Considerable advancement has been made in generating cultures with high numbers of neurons in general and of dopaminergic neurons using a varied array of techniques. However, much of this encouraging progress still remains to be tested on long-term expanded human cultures. Further problems include the low survival rate of these cells following transplantation and the tumorigenic tendencies of embryo-derived cells. However, pre-differentiation or genetic modification of stem cell cultures prior to transplantation may help lead to the generation of high numbers of cells of the desired phenotype following grafting. Boosting particular factors or substrates in the culture media may also protect grafted neurons from oxidative and metabolic stress, and provide epigenetic trophic support.

Possible endogenous sources of cells for brain repair include the transdifferentiation of various types of adult cells into neurons. Despite the excitement generated by examples of this phenomenon, further work is needed in order to identify the precise instructive cues that generate neural cells from many other tissue types, and whether or not the new cells are functionally normal. Furthermore, issues such as cell homogeneity and fusion need to be addressed further before the true potential of transdifferentiation can be known. Endogenous stem cells also reside in the neurogenic zones of the adult brain (ventricle lining and hippocampus). Further elucidation of the mechanisms that stimulate cell division and migration are required in order to learn how to amplify the small amount of new cells generated by the adult brain and to direct these cells to areas of injury or degeneration. Finally, a more fundamental understanding of brain injury and disease is required in order to circumvent local brain environmental restrictions on endogenous cell differentiation and survival.