Brain research partnership to transplant stem cells offers new hope for Parkinson’s

Computerized neuro-injector for stem cell grafting.
Computerized neuro-injector for stem cell grafting.

A research partnership between neurosurgery innovators at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) and cutting-edge stem cell researchers at Harvard, holds out new hope for people living with Parkinson’s. Dr. Ole Isacson, a Harvard professor, recently joined Dr. Ivar Mendez, Chair of the U of S surgery department in Saskatoon to announce their joint research project, which will eventually transplant dopamine-producing brain cells, through a state-of-the-art “micro-injector,” into the brains of 20 people with Parkinson’s disease.

Isacson, a neurobiologist, and Mendez, a neurosurgeon, have been collaborating for about a decade, and will unite their formidable expertise in a joint research project.  “The Harvard team is at the leading edge in producing clinical-grade brain cells for cell transplantation,” says Mendez.

Isacson’s team starts its work with the skin or blood cells of an adult patient. These cells are turned into stem cells and then transformed again into dopamine-producing brain cells.  “Because the cells originate from the patient, the body does not reject them. And we don’t need to use immuno-suppressing (anti-rejection) drugs, which can have many severe side effects,” says Mendez.

Isacson described Mendez’s neurosurgical team as “one of the most sophisticated,” in the world. Mendez, a pioneer who first transplanted fetal stem cells into patients’ brains at Dalhousie nearly a decade ago, is the only surgeon in Canada, and one of only a few in the world, who can perform the intricate procedure. And this time he’ll be using the latest technology in a computerized micro-injector to deposit the adult stem cells from the patient to within 0.3 millimeters of the target area, roughly the length of a grain of table salt.

“We program the parameters of the transplantation into the computer control of the device,” says Mendez, “such as the volume of cells, the rate of implantation and build the deposit using a 3D array to the exact location in the brain.”

Both teams of researchers will continue to study and test their respective parts of the research, with clinical trials set to begin in two to three years. Criteria will also be developed to select the most appropriate patient-candidates for the trial. All of the surgeries will be done by Dr. Mendez in Saskatoon, although the patients will be selected from across North America.

“We are very proud that this work will be done in Canada, with our multi-disciplinary team, including imaging, surgery, movement disorders specialists and many others,” says Mendez. Like deep brain stimulation surgery, patients will be awake, but experience no pain, during the surgery, which will take about three to four hours to complete.

Once the cells are transplanted, they will gradually begin to populate the brain, establish connections, produce dopamine and within about nine months, it’s predicted that Parkinson’s symptoms would be reduced. “While this would not technically be a cure for Parkinson’s, since we still do not know what causes Parkinson’s, it would be a huge advance in available treatment options,” says Mendez.

Computerized neuro-injector for stem cell grafting.
Dr. Ivar Mendez demonstrating the controls of the computerized neuro-injector.

“The ultimate goal is for the transplanted stem cells to reconstruct the brain circuitry that has been destroyed by Parkinson’s and restore some function to the individual,” Mendez said.

Parkinson Society Canada’s National Research Program funds innovative research that aims to unlock the mysteries of Parkinson’s disease. To find out more about currently funded projects, visit