Our skin, part of the integumentary system, is the human’s largest organ. This system comprises some 12 to 16% of our total body weight. There are four or five layers of skin all over our body- and, one of the layers in both types of skin is the stratum germinativum- a layer of stem cells.
Why does the skin have stem cells? These cells are critical to the formation of new skin, as part of wound repair that occurs naturally. But, a group at the University of Cambridge, headed by Fiona Watt, is now looking to manipulate those very same stem cells to treat Parkinson’s disease (a disease of the brain).
Dr. Watt is building upon research that began in the 1990’s. That research involved transplanting brain cells from fetal brains into patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The research showed that half the patients who received the implant had increases of 20% or more, regardless of their age. Patients who were under the age of 60 had pronounced benefits. However, the hue and cry over the use of fetal cells terminated this line of study. In addition, some researchers found that some patients developed jerky, involuntary motions (dyskinesia). Subsequent research has demonstrated that the dyskinesia was a result of malfunctioning serotonin receptors in the brain; this can now be controlled by prescribing a drug that desensitizes serotonin nerve cells.
They are manipulating the stems cells to grow into nerve cells that have atrophied due to Parkinson’s disease. The stem cells they have chosen to study are termed pluripotent. That means these cells can generate all the cell types present in adults. One key difference in the skin’s stem cell is that they have a rapid turnover rate, as opposed to the cells of the brain that seem to not renew themselves.
Dr. Watt has published some results in Nature Cell Biology (June 2010) and were part of the presentation for the Anne McLaren Memorial Lecture at the UK National Stem Cell Network meetings, where the stem cell community gets together to discuss the top research issues.
Professor Watt has been conducting her research at the University of Cambridge thanks to a $ 5 million grant from the Wellcome Trust. In 2008, as head of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, Dr. Watt implored President Obama to reverse the virtual ban on stem cell research imposed by President Bush in 2001.