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Parkinson's disease is a common cause of dementia – you can read more about this in our blog post on dementia's relationship with Parkinson's.

Most research into Parkinson's looks at a type of brain cell called the neuron. Now, a researcher in DPUK's Stem Cell Network is shedding light on how the cells that support neurons (known as the glial cells) are involved in Parkinson's disease.

Naroa Ibarra AizpuruaNaroa Ibarra Aizpurua

Naroa Ibarra Aizpurua is starting the second year of her DPhil (PhD) at the University of Oxford. She studied for her undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of the Basque Country, which included a year of study in Texas.

She then moved to Oxford to complete her Neuroscience MSc, which involved working in DPUK's Stem Cell Network lab at the University of Oxford. She has continued working in this lab to conduct her PhD project.

Naroa said: 'In the healthy brain, we need a type of glial cell called astrocytes for almost every function of neurons, including feeding them and responding to attacks from disease. My PhD project focuses on how astrocytes interact with neurons in people with Parkinson's disease.'

Previously, the only way she would be able to do this is by looking at the brains of people with Parkinson's after they have died. Now – thanks to the DPUK-funded Stem Cell Network – Naroa is growing astrocytes and neurons using special cells from living Parkinson's patients. These cells are induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are living human cells that have the potential to grow into any cell type in the human body.

Image showing a 'co-culture' of neurons and astrocytesImage showing a 'co-culture' of neurons and astrocytes

Even more incredibly, once these cells have transformed into their desired adult cells, they can be frozen and then thawed when they are needed. This buys Naroa time to grow all the cells she needs and conduct even more experiments on them.

The Parkinson's patients she is taking the iPSC samples from have a particular genetic mutation that hasn't been researched in detail in astrocytes before. She is also growing astrocytes and neurons using iPSCs from several healthy people as a control group.

Naroa said: 'The main thing I'm interested in is whether healthy astrocytes can support diseased neurons to help them function properly. I am also investigating the reverse – whether diseased astrocytes can harm healthy neurons. If the healthy astrocytes do have the power to rescue diseased neurons, this presents an exciting new therapeutic target for treating a host of neurodegenerative diseases that damage neurons.'

So far, research investigating these things has only been able to use brain cells from rodents. These are very different from human brain cells, so the findings aren't always directly applicable to people with Parkinson's disease.

Naroa is just starting to get some preliminary results from her experiments but needs to repeat the process to ensure her findings are accurate. Keep an eye on the news section of the DPUK website for updates about her project.