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Pioneering Parkinson’s research using ‘Benjamin Button’ cell reverse ageing technique begins 

A PIONEERING Parkinson’s research project using a ‘Benjamin Button’ reverse ageing technique to produce stem cells has begun in Cardiff. 

The three-year study at Cardiff University, led by winner of the prestigious Future Leader Fellowship Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly, is being funded through a substantial £324,695 grant from Parkinson’s UK.

Researchers believe it has the potential to improve our understanding of the condition, which could lead to more effective treatments.

Ana Palazon, Country Director of Parkinson’s UK Cymru, has hailed the “fantastic” Parkinson’s community for its contributions to the grant that is funding the research.

To conduct the research, a team of top scientists are turning skin cells that have been donated by people who have the condition back into stem cells by using a combination of “reprogramming factors”.

Stem cells have the potential to become almost any other cell in the body, making them a useful tool to study conditions such as Parkinson’s, as they can make studying the brain more accessible.

This way of producing stem cells has been likened to something out of the 2008 fantasy romantic drama film ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, in which Brad Pitt plays a character who ages in reverse. 

Once this process is complete the newly-formed stem cells are then turned into neurons which are examined in a complex and intricate set of experiments using a high tech piece of kit called an electrophysiological rig. 

The rig is used to examine the electrical communication the cells of the brain use to talk with one another and coordinate specific tasks. This communication between the different cells in the brain is vital to control how people speak, move, think, and feel. 

One way of ensuring that brain cells can communicate effectively is to keep the cells free from a build up of waste products, using a recycling system. 

Brain cells also have to perform general “housekeeping” functions such as “spring cleaning”: removing old workers (proteins) that have served their purpose. However, researchers believe that this recycling process might not work properly for people with Parkinson’s. This could lead to the death of brain cells which are responsible for producing a brain chemical called dopamine.

People with Parkinson’s don’t have enough of the chemical dopamine in their brain because some of the brain cells that make it stop functioning correctly. 

The research is looking at how the communication between cells and the cells’ recycling system are linked. Both are known to be affected in people with Parkinson’s, but it is not clear how they impact upon one another.

Previous research, which has looked at these in isolation, has shown that the two problems are linked, but it is not known whether one problem causes the other. 

Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly’s team at the UK Dementia Research Institute at Cardiff University wants to know how cells in the brain deteriorate over time in those with the condition, which could aid the development of earlier and better targeted treatments. 

Dr Beccano-Kelly explained how the stem cells are created:  “In essence they regress to their original form before starting to develop again. You’re taking the skin cells and you’re pushing them all the way back to that stem cell state in a way that’s Benjamin Button-esque. You’ve pushed them all the way to their origin. 

“You’ve reset the computer effectively. It’s a fantastic piece of technology and it’s really useful because it’s giving us human cells to work with a human disease. It can’t be used to turn back time in the people with Parkinson’s. But what it does allow is for us to reset the cells and assess them as they age!”

Ana Palazon, Country Director of Parkinson’s UK Cymru, said: “We are delighted to be funding the pioneering work of Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly and his team right here in Wales.

“Parkinson’s is the fastest neurological condition in the world, and it is vital that we gain a better understanding of how the cells in the brain communicate with each other in people who have the condition so we can develop better targeted and more effective treatments.

“We are incredibly grateful to our fantastic Parkinson’s community because the funding generated by volunteers and many other generous donors helps fund pioneering research like this.”

Dr Beccano-Kelly, added: “The communication between cells and how the cells get rid of old proteins within the cells are both things that are known to be affected in Parkinson’s. But we don’t know how they interact with one another.

“We think that those two functions actually directly relate to one another so we’ll be looking at that using some really cool wonderful techniques that will allow us to see if there is a direct link between those two things.

“The aim of this three year funded programme is to understand the mechanism by which those two things are linked and how they’re going wrong in Parkinson’s, which will give us targets for treatments. 

“Electrophysiology looks at live cells, looks at real time data coming out of those cells, and how they’re communicating at that exact moment in time.

“Moving forward this can help us identify therapeutic tools and drugs that can stop that mechanism from becoming aberrant.

“What we really want to understand with this research is how Parkinson’s can change over time. We know that this is a disorder that often starts to affect individuals clinically at about 60 to 65 years old.

“But a lot of the evidence shows that this is something that doesn’t just initiate at 65, that changes are happening in the brain that start possibly decades before. 

“We want to really understand how that’s changing over time because creating an effective new drug would probably have to look different depending on what stage of the condition you’re actually at. 

“We often try to categorise a disease just as what we see at the very end or the major symptoms, and so what we’re really trying to do is see what comes earlier so we can slow it down at that stage. Because if we can do that, everything following that will also be slowed down.

“Catching something early is always better. The earlier you can intervene into any disease or disorder the better for the individual and improves quality of life. For instance, if we can intervene before a person develops a very overt tremor we can push back the date at which that overt tremor actually manifests. 

“If we can do that it’s obviously going to improve the person’s lifestyle and their ability to live with Parkinson’s.

“I’m optimistic that a cure for Parkinson’s will be found eventually. I think that the work that we’re doing brings us ever closer to understanding the different aspects of the condition.”