Wed, May 16, 2018 - Page 4 News List

Nobel laureate optimistic about Parkinson’s research

Staff writer, with CNA

Advances in stem cell research have raised the prospect of a breakthrough in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, Nobel laureate Randy Schekman told the Central News Agency in an interview during a visit to Taipei last month.

“We still have to know a lot about the pathology of Parkinson’s disease,” Schekman said on April 26, adding that he believes embryonic stem cell research would likely lead to the next big clinical breakthrough for the disease.

Schekman, who shared the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with fellow American James Rothman, a biochemist, and German-American biochemist Thomas Sudhof, for solving the mystery of how a cell organizes its transport system, is now leading a major effort to study Parkinson’s.

The study is funded by Google cofounder Sergey Brin, who has donated heavily to Parkinson’s research ever since he was found in 2008 to have a gene mutation that leaves him with a higher possibility of contracting the disease.

There are a number of investigators in Asia and around the world exploring the use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) — a discovery made by Japanese stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka in 2006 — to devise treatment for Parkinson’s, Schekman said.

Parkinson’s disease is primarily caused by deficiency in dopamine produced by dopaminergic neurons in the brain.

It is possible to turn adult cells taken from a Parkinson’s patient into an embryonic-like state in the laboratory and convert them into, for instance, dopaminergic neurons to be implanted back into the brain of the patient to restore the dead dopaminergic neurons, Schekman said.

The use of iPS technology in the disease “is still being actively researched, but there is some promise,” he said. “This is something I think deserves more support.”

A new technology to grow iPS cells into three-dimension mini organs, instead of flat surface, in a laboratory also allows investigators to further explore the nature of the disease, he added.

Schekman, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, had a personal connection with the disease because his wife, Nancy Walls, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when she was 48.

She died on Sept. 7 last year, about seven weeks shy of her 69th birthday.

After decades of work on yeast to identify the pathway of protein export and showing that it is similar to the pathway in human cells, Schekman said he has moved on to working on human cultured cells, focusing on extracellular vesicles.

Extracellular vesicles are tiny membrane-enclosed particles released from cells that transport molecules such as ribonucleic acid (RNA) outside of the cells as a form of intercellular communication.

The study of extracellular vesicles that carry RNAs secreted by cells and circulate in bodily fluids could help early diagnosis of cancer, Schekman said.

“It has been discovered that the RNAs you can find in human serum change during metastatic cancer, so the biotechnology industry is very interested in using these RNAs as a diagnostic tool, maybe even for very early diagnosis of cancer,” he said.

Schekman visited Taiwan at the invitation of the Tang Prize Foundation. He is a member of the foundation’s international advisory board.

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