Photo/IllutrationThe Asahi Shimbun

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Kyoto University researchers transplanted nerve cells derived from induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells into the brain of a Parkinson’s disease patient, a world’s first that moves regenerative science closer to a new therapy.

The team must still confirm the safety of the clinical trial but plans to eventually have the treatment covered under the national health insurance program.

The patient, a man in his 50s, looked comfortable after the three-hour transplant operation conducted in October and remains in good condition, the team said at a news conference in Kyoto on Nov. 9.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder caused by a decrease in nerve cells that produce dopamine in the brain. Symptoms include shaking in the limbs and difficulty in movement.

An estimated 160,000 people in Japan have Parkinson’s disease.

For the operation, about 2.4 million nerve cells were created through iPS cells donated by a third party.

Those nerve cells, programmed to produce dopamine, were injected into 12 parts of the patient’s brain through a 1.2-centimeter-wide hole created on the left side of his forehead.

For the therapy, the team envisions using one injection to transplant about 5 million nerve cells created through iPS technology.

The researchers started with half of that amount on the patient because of the possibility that the dopamine-producing nerve cells would not achieve the intended result and become cancerous.

So far, the patient has had no bleeding in the brain or other troubles, according to the team.

The remaining half of the nerve cells will be transplanted after the team confirms the patient has not exhibited any problems for half a year.

The team will then spend two more years to verify the safety of the clinical trial and monitor if the patient’s movement functions have improved.

The researchers also plan to perform the operation on six other Parkinson’s disease patients in their 50s and 60s, including transplants of about 5 million nerve cells in a single injection.

Any patient who receives the nerve cells will be administered an immuno-suppressing agent for a year to rein in rejection symptoms, according to the study.

The university team is soliciting participation from patients with no other diseases.

If the clinical trial produces promising results, the university will team up with businesses to establish a system to mass produce nerve cells created through iPS technology. It will also seek government approval to cover the treatment under the national health insurance program.

“We are aiming to gain early approval,” said team leader Jun Takahashi, a professor of neurosurgery at the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application at Kyoto University.

The Japan Parkinson’s Disease Association was encouraged by the university’s announcement.

“It is great news because we were hoping for the start of a clinical trial as soon as possible,” said Kosei Hasegawa, representative chairman of the association whose wife died of complications from the disease a decade ago.

“But we are still in the stage of waiting with high expectations for the results of the trial. We hope things will go well and that the treatment will spread,” he said.

(This article was written by Ryosuke Nonaka and Roku Goda.)