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Using Stem Cells to Treat Movement Disorders

In This Video

  • Patients with tremor, Parkinson's disease and dystonia are often potential candidates for movement disorder surgery
  • Here, Jeffrey Schweitzer, MD, PhD, discusses his developing interest in movement disorder research and using stem cell technology to restore normal function
  • Dr. Schweitzer hopes to improve this technology to deliver to precise tissue locations, help cells survive in the brain and restore functionality

Jeffrey Schweitzer, MD, PhD, neurosurgeon, discusses his interest in movement disorder research using stem cells to restore normal function in patients with movement disorders such as tremor, Parkinson's and dystonia. Current technologies can develop particular cell types from stem cells, which can be delivered to the brain. Dr. Schweitzer is interested in improving technology to deliver into precise locations in the brain, allowing these cells to survive and restore normal function. 


Movement disorder surgery is designed to address patient quality of life. Specifically, there are three main areas of movement disorder that are potential candidates for surgery: tremor, Parkinson's disease and dystonia. These are surgeries that are reserved for people who don't tolerate medication or for whom medication is not sufficiently effective. 

Over the last few decades, there's been an interest in going beyond creating either anatomical or physiological holes in the nervous system, blocking things or using white noise to affect the improvement in movement control that we want to see in movement disorder patients. The interest is in really finding cures that will restore normal function, and with particular respect to Parkinson's disease where we have a good scientific basis and knowledge of what underlies at least the motor symptoms, attention has turned to implanting tissue into the brain to improve function in these areas. 

And although there's a popular misconception that stem cells are put into the brain to restore the cells that are missing, while that's not quite true, we do indeed now have the technology to use stem cells in the laboratory to develop particular cell types that we do want to put back into the brain to restore function. This technology is progressing very rapidly at a number of laboratories around the world, including here at Harvard Medical School and McLean Laboratory. I've worked with them on a project to develop this type of technology for use in Parkinson's disease, which we expect to go into clinical investigation, clinical trials, within the near future. 

Our particular interest, my laboratory interest, is in improving technology to allow the delivery of this tissue into precise locations, and to ensure that when it gets there, it survives and does what we want it to do. With the development of better stem cell technology, we will have in the next 10 years a menu of options to offer patients involving closed loop stimulation for symptoms, particularly for things like tremor or dystonia where there's no obvious cell restorative solution, but also for Parkinson's disease, more precisely developed and engineered cell products to offer them. These will include things made from standard cell lines that may require people to be on immunosuppression. It may involve products developed from patient's own body cells, first program to become stem cells, and then programmed to the precise type of cell that we want. So we're going to see an explosion of a variety of options. 

I think it's too early to tell which one of these things is going to be the standard. I suspect that there will be more than one, but it's very exciting to live at a time and be at the forefront, and in a place where this technology is developing. We're going to see a revolution in this field that I think will rival that which occurred in 1968 when Levodopa therapy was developed for Parkinson's disease. That will offer a range of options that have never before been possible for quality of life in an ever larger number of patients.

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