Brussels, 04 Jun 2004
Scientists and researchers attending the sixth European congress on epileptology, which concluded on 3 June, have heard how embryonic stem cells can be used to regenerate brain tissue.
In a presentation that created a great deal of interest among the 3,000 visiting delegates, the German team that carried out the research reported that neuronal precursor cells, derived from embryonic stem cells, had been functionally integrated into host brain tissue following transplantation.
The results could have potential applications for the treatment of epilepsy sufferers, especially as in up to 20 per cent of cases the best therapy option for patients is the removal of uncontrolled cells that cause electrical discharge in the brain.
One of the study's authors, Professor Oliver Brüstle from the institute of reconstructive neurobiology at the University of Bonn, explained: 'Currently we are at an early stage of our research. A lot more basic science is necessary before we can fathom the potential for clinical applications of embryonic stem cells.
'However, together with Heinz Beck and his team at the Clinic for Epileptology in Bonn, we were able to show in animal models that following transplantation, embryonic stem cell-derived neurones connect well with neurones of the brain and not only become electrically active [...] but also receive and process signals from the host's brain.'
So far, the team has only achieved these results under laboratory conditions using animal models and cell cultures, hence it is too early to say whether the regeneration of brain tissue in human patients will be possible, and the potential for delivering epilepsy therapies remains unknown. However, as well as regenerating removed or lost neurons, the transplantation of stem cells also offers the possibility of introducing compounds into the brain to suppress epileptic seizures.
Despite the team's reluctance to create undue expectations, the potential impact of their work was clear to all at the congress. As Professor Christoph Baumgartner, chair of the event's scientific advisory committee, put it: 'Nowadays two-thirds of epilepsy patients can be treated very well using modern anti-epileptic drugs. However, each year thousands of patients require other therapeutic approaches. One successful alternative is epilepsy surgery that removes affected brain areas. The efficacy of such treatment may well be enhanced by subsequent brain regeneration [...].'
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