Exciting times for stem cell research

This week, early results from the world's first clinical trial using embryonic stem cells to treat eye conditions suggest the method is safe. This is an important step towards developing stem cells as a treatment, and offers hope for many conditions for which there isn't a cure at the moment – including Parkinson's.

Stem cells have great potential to grow new nerve cells that could one day be used to replace those lost in Parkinson's. And research around the world is making massive strides towards this goal.

In November last year, we reported on research in the US which used nerve cells grown from human embryonic stem cells to repair the brain in 3 animal models of Parkinson's.

While this early research is promising, more work is needed before stem cells can be tested in people with Parkinson's.

It's impossible to predict how long it will take for stem cell therapies to become a reality for people with Parkinson's. But we're funding some of the best and brightest UK stem cell scientists to move this vital research forward as quickly as possible.

Parkinson's UK-funded researcher Dr Rosemary Fricker answered some questions about stem cell research in our stem cell Q&A.

If you have any thoughts or questions about stem cell research, please add a comment below or email us on research@parkinsons.org.uk

How does your protein fold?

To do their jobs properly inside cells, proteins must first fold themselves into the correct shape. If they don't, trouble can result.

Hundreds of conditions, including Parkinson's, involve proteins that misfold and stick together which means cells can't work properly and eventually die.

In Parkinson's, the main culprit seems to be a protein called alpha-synuclein which misfolds and forms sticky clumps called Lewy bodies in the nerve cells that die. And research that we've funded has shown that alpha-synuclein may be responsible for the spread of the condition throughout the brain.

So finding ways to stop key proteins - like alpha-synuclein - misfolding holds great promise for developing new and better treatments.

Now, 2 exciting new research studies from a US research team may bring the hunt for new treatments closer.

In the first, published in PLoS Genetics, they pinpointed 9 genes that seem to play a vital role in keeping proteins inside cells healthy. And in the second, published in Nature Genetics, they identified 30 small molecules that help cells make sure their proteins are properly folded - which may have potential for treating conditions like Parkinson's.

These studies suggest that the key to folding may be 'chaperones' - proteins whose job is to help other proteins fold correctly and to help dismantle and remove damaged or misfolded proteins from our cells.

One of our current research projects, led by Professor Chris Moody at the University of Nottingham, aims to develop new drugs for Parkinson's that work by targeting chaperones (PDF file).

Parkinson's UK members recently visited Chris Moody's lab to hear more about his project.

There are lots of ways that people living with Parkinson's can get involved in our research. What would you like to do? Email us on research@parkinsons.org.uk

Looking ahead - hopes and plans for 2012

Now the tinsel is packed away, there is a lot to look forward to in 2012 - the year of the London Olympics, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and, of course, Parkinson's Awareness Week 2012.

This year, Parkinson's Awareness Week runs from 16-22 April. Plans are underway to encourage as many people as possible to join us and to help raise funds to find a cure for Parkinson's.

With exciting research plans coming up this year, there are many ways to help us find a cure and improve the lives of everyone affected by Parkinson's. You can get involved in whatever way suits you, whether that's taking part in a research study or joining our Research Support Network.

With overseas adventures, running events like Run Highclere at Highclere Castle (the home of ITV1's 'Downton Abbey') and Party for Parkinson's, there are many way to help fundraise too, to help us in our vital work.

We'll continue to campaign to make sure that people affected by Parkinson's have the services and support they need. To help us make politicians and decision-makers listen, you can write to your MP, join our Campaigns Network or tell us your experiences about the NHS, benefit system or social care.

Let's build on the momentum of 2011. There's still work to do and we need you.

What are your hopes and plans for 2012? Add your thoughts below.