Summer 2002: Attempt to cure Parkinson’s

While celebrities Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali have helped give a face to Parkinson’s disease, it’s the University of South Florida that will attempt to find a cure for the life threatening disorder this summer.

USF has been chosen along with four other universities to conduct research to find a cure for Parkinson’s using cells from the retina of the eye.

Robert A. Hauser, physician, and director for the USF Movement Disorder Center, said USF is a logical place to conduct the 12-month study.

“We have a lot of strengths in faculty,” Hauser said. “We have experts in Parkinson’s disease … and we also have cell transplant experts. That would be Tom Freeman.”

The study, set to begin this summer, will involve injecting the cells of human retinas into patients’ brains. Freeman, a neurosurgeon at USF and Tampa General Hospital, will perform the injections, while Hauser will oversee the patient recruitment.

Cells from the retina produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, which sends signals to other nerve cells in the brain to control muscle movement. Parkinson’s disease occurs when nerve cells in the brain stop producing dopamine and die. The retinal cells also produce the chemical levodopa, which is the main component of the most effective Parkinson’s treatment to date, Sinemet. Levodopa converts to dopamine in the brain, creating pathways for muscle control.

The retinal cells will be taken from donor’s eyes, which are prepared and provided by a pharmaceutical company, said Hauser.

“Over time, the brain develops a resistance to levodopa,” Hauser said in a news release. “Once that resistance begins, the patient’s quality of life can begin to suffer.”

But the procedure is not risk free.

“The cells need to be injected, (so there) is always the possibility of a problem. A serious problem being potential bleeding, which would cause a stroke-like problem or death. But we consider both to be very rare,” Hauser said.

Hauser said there aren’t any other side effects for patients to worry about.

However, the benefits to the patients would be invaluable. With increased dopamine levels, patients could have increased muscle control and avoid other telltale signs of the disease, such as tremors.

“We hope that by implanting these dopamine-producing cells, patients will maintain a more consistent response to medication and improve motor control,” Hauser said in a news release.Although the retinal cells will come from eyes obtained through organ donation, Hauser does not foresee any issues with not having enough cells.

“One donor eye can treat 100 patients,” Hauser said. “We don’t anticipate any problems getting cells.”

This new study will be one of several currently being conducted at USF to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. USF’s research regarding Parkinson’s is locally supported by the Coalition to Cure Parkinson’s Disease.

Formed by local caregivers, physicians, scientists and Parkinson’s patients, the Coalition’s purpose is to understand the disease and support efforts for finding a cure.

Contact Megan Sullivanat