Melbourne - A New Zealand company plans to implant pig cells in the human brain in a clinical trial to treat Parkinson's disease and help improve movement and brain functions in patients.
The clinical trials, planned for next year, would be the first using pig brain cells for potential treatment in humans.
Living Cell Technologies Ltd said on Tuesday the treatment involves transplanting "support" cells from the brain of pigs that can help repair damaged nerve tissue in people with Parkinson's.
Parkinson's is a degenerative disorder of the nervous system that affects four to six million people worldwide. In Parkinson's, reduced dopamine levels in the brain lead to movement-related symptoms such as tremor, rigidity and slow movement, and later cognitive symptoms.
Living Cell Chief Executive Andrea Grant said pre-clinical trials in monkeys showed improvements of greater than 50% in symptoms.
"Within two weeks of implanting the cells, we saw an improvement in the movement tremors that the monkeys had. We saw an improvement in tests of their memory and attention, and the improvement was sustained for the six-month period of the trial," Grant told Reuters.
The results suggested the cell implants could protect brain tissue that would otherwise die, potentially delaying or even preventing the debilitating effects of Parkinson's, Grant said.
Conventional drugs to treat Parkinson's alleviate its symptoms, but they lose effectiveness over time and do not address the underlying loss of the brain cells that produce dopamine.
"The support cells are like the regeneration engine of the brain. They enable neurons that are sick to regenerate and repopulate the area of the brain that's damaged," Grant said in a telephone interview.
The cells are taken from the brain tissue of newborn pigs from a special "clean" herd, because of the risks of diseases from modern pigs.
The company uses pigs descended from a herd that was left isolated in the 1850s on an abandoned whaling station in the Auckland Islands, some 465km south of New Zealand.
The cells are treated to prevent the human immune system from rejecting them.
Living Cell Technologies plans to apply to New Zealand authorities in early May and, if approval is granted, to start Phase I trials by the end of the March quarter 2013.