UNC Parkinson's team develops smart immune cells to deliver neuroprotective proteins

Scientists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have genetically modified white blood cells (known as macrophages) to make glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor--GDNF. The research was published in PLoS ONE, and the downstream effect of such work could benefit patients with neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's.

Glial cells support and protect neurons in the brain and body and GDNF protein has the ability to heal and stimulate the growth of damaged neurons.

The study was headed up by Elena Batrakova who is an associate professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy's Center for Nanotechnology in Drug Delivery.

"Currently, there are no treatments that can halt or reverse the course of Parkinson's disease. There are only therapies to address quality of life, such as dopamine replacement," says Batrakova. "However, studies have shown that delivering neurotrophic factor to the brain not only promotes the survival of neurons but also reverses the progression of Parkinson's disease."

In addition to the new engineered function of macrophages to deliver GDNF--they can also instruct neurons to make GDNF by themselves. They do this by releasing other proteins, DNA and messenger RNA which are the ingredients required for any cell of the body to start creating their own protein.

One of the issues researchers face with developing drugs that target the brain is the limited capacity for most drugs to cross the blood-brain-barrier.  Batrakova's team use their reprogrammed macrophage cells to cross this physical barrier and then produce tiny bubbles called exosomes, which carries the proteins to the damaged neurons.

Alexander Kabanov, director of the nanotechnology centre expects this technology to be rolled out soon in the clinic. After receiving a $50,000 Technology Enhancement Grant the team will now look to license and commercialize their technology. 

- here's the release