Someday soon, a patient who receives a Parkinson's diagnosis might be able to stop or even reverse the disease's spread with a transplant of nerve tissue from his or her own body.
University of Kentucky physicians are working on a pilot program in which Parkinson's patients who have deep-brain stimulation surgery — in which a device like a pacemaker regulates nerve cues in the brain — are also having nerve tissue grafted into their brain that was taken from near their ankles.
UK is the first medical center in the United States to conduct the clinical trial.
Five people have joined the program, and Dr. Craig van Horne, UK assistant professor of neurosurgery and principle investigator of the clinical trial, called their progress encouraging.
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"I've been refining this idea for decades," said van Horne, who has been at UK for two years. "It allows us to take the next step, see what works, see what doesn't work."
The process might not be a home run — his eventual goal is to find a way to restore function of the brain's damaged cells, allowing a patient's symptoms to stabilize or reverse — but it should yield enough information for UK to continue research, he said.
Parkinson's affects about 1 million Americans, and 10 million people worldwide, according to UK. It is a progressive and degenerative disease in which the death of nerves deep in the brain causes an array of motor and non motor symptoms, and there is no known cure. Parkinson's symptoms include tremor, rigidity, slow movement and unstable posture.
Whether the process is a significant move ahead in Parkinson's treatment probably will be known in a year or so, van Horne said. In the meantime, the project is seeking more participants. Those selected have to be candidates for deep-brain stimulation surgery and willing to have the additional nerve tissue transplant.
The peripheral nerves, unlike those in the brain and spinal cord, can regenerate when they are damaged. The hope is that the implanted nerve tissue will release chemicals that will help the brain heal itself by stimulating regeneration in the parts of the brain damaged by Parkinson's.
Deep-brain stimulation surgery has been used for more than 10 years to help patients with Parkinson's. It alleviates some of the movement problems suffered by Parkinson's patients, but it doesn't halt the progress of the disease. The cruelty of Parkinson's is that by the time it's detected, much of the degeneration it will cause in the brain is well underway.
Rodney Parsons, 71, of Lexington has had Parkinson's for 10 years. He went to doctors around the country before finding van Horne at UK. He isn't part of the trial, but he underwent deep brain stimulation surgery and has nothing but praise for van Horne's skills and research abilities.
Parsons first noticed a tremor in his right hand, then his left. Then he developed a slumped posture. After the deep-brain stimulation surgery, Parsons felt better immediately.
On Monday, he commended van Horne's skills as a person and a surgeon.
"He's very humble and very easy to talk to," Parsons said.