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The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease begin slowly. Movement changes like tremors and stiffness can develop over years, often accompanied by subtle signs like difficulty sleeping and loss of smell. Symptoms progress over time, turning everyday activities like walking, speaking, and eating into challenges that are difficult without assistance. A chronic condition, Parkinson’s disease affects over one million individuals and their families in the United States. And while that number increases every year, there is still no proven therapy to stop the disease.

“We have therapies that effectively treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but we don’t have anything that stops the rate of progression, and we certainly don’t have a cure,” says Mya C. Schiess, MD, a movement disorder specialist at UTHealth Neurosciences. “We are trying to change that.”

Inflammation, a normal part of the immune system response, usually helps protect the body from foreign substances like infections. But for people with Parkinson’s disease, an inflammatory condition prevents the brain from functioning normally and eventually causes neurons to die. 

In an effort to slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease, Schiess is leading the first US Food and Drug Administration-approved clinical trial using mesenchymal stem cells to “switch off” this inflammation in the brain.

“Mesenchymal stem cells, which are derived from the bone marrow of healthy adult volunteers, may help lock down the molecules causing inflammation in the brain. In doing so, they may reestablish the normal brain environment, potentially restoring neurons,” Schiess says.

Schiess and her team conducted Phase I of the clinical trial, which concluded in September 2019, to evaluate the safety of the treatment. During this phase, none of the patients experienced negative immune reactions to the infusions.

“We found that patients safely tolerated the mesenchymal stem cell treatment,” Schiess reports. “The highest dose was also effective in reducing markers of inflammation, and it may have improved some symptoms of the disease.” 

Building on this success, Schiess and her team began Phase II of the trial in 2020 to determine the ideal mesenchymal stem cell dose. Every three months, patients will receive either mesenchymal stem cells or a placebo. After the third and final treatment, Schiess will follow patients for a year to evaluate their progress.

“We hope to show that repeated doses of mesenchymal stem cell treatments can reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease,” Schiess says. “If we can demonstrate this, then we will know we are working with a therapy that could protect the brain and can slow down the disease, bringing much needed relief to patients and their families.”

Philanthropic support enables Schiess and her team to solve challenging neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease. “This research would not be possible without philanthropy,” she says. “I am very grateful to John and Kyle Kirksey, The Michael J. Fox Foundation, the John S. Dunn Foundation, and all our partners for providing the resources to help change the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease.”

Over the next three years, Schiess and her team will work on the Phase II trial, hopefully leading to a life-changing therapy that slows symptom progression and changes how we treat this debilitating condition. This groundbreaking research could bring us one step closer to a world
without Parkinson’s disease.

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