Nobel laureate optimistic about treatment for Parkinson's, cancer (Focus Taiwan)

  • Prize-winning cell biologist Randy Schekman
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Taipei, May 7 (CNA) Advances in stem cell research have raised the prospect of a medical breakthrough in the treatment of Parkinson's disease, Nobel Prize-winning cell biologist Randy Schekman said in Taipei recently.

"We still have to know a lot about the pathology of Parkinson's disease," Schekman told CNA during an interview April 26, but he believes embryonic stem cell research will likely lead to the next big clinical breakthrough for the disease.

Schekman, who shared the 2013 Nobel Prize with American biochemist James Rothman and German-American biochemist Thomas Sudhof for solving the mystery of how a cell organizes its transport system, is now leading a major effort on studying Parkinson's.

The study is funded by Sergey Brin, a Google co-founder. Brin has donated heavily to Parkinson's research since he was diagnosed in 2008 to be carrying a gene mutation that leaves him with a higher possibility of contracting the disease later in life than others.

There are a number of investigators in Asia and around the world exploring the use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) -- a discovery made by Japanese stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka in 2006 -- to devise treatment for Parkinson's, Schekman said.

Parkinson's disease is primarily caused by deficiency in dopamine produced by dopaminergic neurons in the brain.

It is possible to turn adult cells taken from a Parkinson's patient into an embryonic-like state in the laboratory and convert them into, for instance, dopaminergic neurons to be implanted back into the brain of the patient to restore the dead dopaminergic neurons, Schekman said.

The use of iPS technology in the disease "is still being actively researched, but there is some promise," he said. "This is something I think deserves more support."

A new technology to grow iPS cells into three-dimension mini organs, instead of flat surface, in a laboratory also allows investigators to further explore the nature of the disease, he added.

Schekman, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkley, said he has a personal connection to the research into Parkinson's because his wife Nancy Walls, who was diagnosed with the disease aged 48, died of the disease last year.

After decades of work on yeast to identify the pathway of protein export in yeast and showing that it is similar to the pathway in human cells, Schekman said he has moved on to working on human cultured cells in recent years, focusing on extracellular vesicles.

Extracellular vesicles are tiny membrane-enclosed particles released from cells that transport molecules such as ribonucleic acid (RNA) outside of the cells as a form of intercellular communication.

The study of extracellular vesicles that carry RNAs secreted by cells and circulate in bodily fluids could help early diagnosis of cancer, Schekman said.

"It has been discovered that the RNAs you can find in human serum change during metastatic cancer, so the biotechnology industry is very interested in using these RNAs as a diagnostic tool, maybe even for very early diagnosis of cancer," he said.

Schekman was visiting Taiwan at the invitation of the Tang Prize Foundation in his capacity as a member of the foundation's International Advisory Board. 

(By Shih Hsiu-chuan)