Shipowner Eric K. Fernström’s foundation is based at the Faculty of Medicine at Lund University. The Foundation awards an annual Nordic prize of SEK 1 million and local prizes of SEK 100 000 each to promising young researchers at Sweden’s six university medical faculties.
This year’s prize recognises Anders Björklund’s “development of innovative forms of treatment for Parkinson’s disease”. The work began in the 1970s, when his research group were pioneers in transplanting new nerve cells into the brain. At the time, most researchers did not consider this either possible or meaningful.
“The prevailing view was that the brain was a sort of switchboard, a closed control room that couldn’t be changed. Now, on the other hand, we know that the brain is plastic – it changes all the time depending on the individual’s development and possible diseases”, says Anders Björklund.
The transplantation of brain cells has grown into a major international research field. In Lund, a number of patients with Parkinson’s disease have received nerve cell transplants. However, the results have been mixed: some patients have seen a marked improvement, while others have not been affected at all. The fetal brain cells used in these trials are difficult to obtain in sufficiently large numbers, and too varied in quality to form the basis for a more regular treatment.
Hope is therefore in stem cells which are customised to produce dopamine, the substance which Parkinson’s patients lack. The vision is to halt the progression of the disease at an early stage through a one-off treatment with these stem cells.
“This requires a surgical operation on the brain, of course. However, such operations have already been performed on many thousands of Parkinson’s patients, for whom medication has not worked and who instead have received ‘deep brain stimulation’ via an electrode. The stem cells could be injected in a similar way via thin cannulas to different parts of the brain”, explains Anders Björklund.
First, however, suitable stem cells must be developed and tested. The large research network around Anders Björklund is actively involved in this work. The aim is both to develop cells which function as planned without the risk of side-effects and to work out which patients benefit from the treatment.
“We believe that only a subgroup of Parkinson´patients can benefit from receiving new dopamine-producing cells. We need to understand what characterises this group so that we don’t subject any patients to an unnecessary procedure”, says Anders Björklund.
However, he has a strong belief in the method.
“If we can show that a transplant of healthy nerve cells can help a brain damaged by Parkinson’s disease to heal itself, then that principle could also be used for other neurological diseases”, he says.
The Eric K. Fernström Nordic Prize will be presented at the popular science event Forskningens dag on 2 November in Lund. At the same time, the local prizes for young researchers will also be awarded. Journalists who wish to will be offered the opportunity to meet the prizewinners on the day of the presentation.