Northwestern University investigators will use molecular imaging in mice to learn how the brain cells that are destroyed in patients with Parkinson’s disease are initially developed. This insight may lead to an improved ability to develop stem cell therapy for patients with this degenerative disease.
Cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine in one region of the midbrain are selectively destroyed in patients who develop Parkinson’s disease. The anatomic, molecular, and functional characteristics of dopamine-producing cells in these regions are distinct. The researchers will determine whether they can develop molecular imaging techniques that can show, in mice, where embryonic progenitor cells migrate to within the midbrain to become dopamine-producing neurons. Specifically, the investigators will see if they can fluorescently tag the progenitor cells and use two-photon imaging to visualize the cells’ migratory paths. If so, the investigators then would be able to test their hypothesis that subsets of progenitor cells receive distinct genetic commands that instruct them to migrate to specific regions of the midbrain.
If that is the case, the research could lead to methods to identify the genes in the subgroup of cells affected by Parkinson’s disease. Identification of genes, in turn, could lead to development of stem cells designed to replace the dopamine-producing neurons that are destroyed in Parkinson’s disease. The imaging method developed in this project also could be used to determine whether those stem cells reach their intended destination.
Significance: This molecular imaging feasibility study is a first step in efforts to develop stem therapy for Parkinson’s disease. The technique also could be used, once stem cells are designed, to determine whether the stem cells migrate to the affected brain area in patients.