Personalized Treatment for BiPolar Disorder: Are Stem Cells the Answer?

Everyone goes through ups and downs in life, but for people with bipolar disorder, these shifts in mood are dramatic and severe, affecting their ability to carry on with daily life. The illness, also known as manic-depressive disorder, is associated with distinct variations in emotions, mood, energy, sleep patterns, behaviors, and activity. Bipolar people alternate between feeling unusually happy and upbeat and hopelessly sad and depressed.

Nearly 6 million Americans are diagnosed with bipolar disorder every year. Left untreated, the condition can lead to a complete breakdown of the affected person’s relationships, performance at school or work, and, in severe cases, death from suicide. Proper treatment and careful long-term management allow affected individuals to lead a full and productive life. Now, scientists are examining the usefulness of stem cell therapy in treating this debilitating disorder.

University of Edinburgh Research

To boost research into the condition, patients with bipolar disorder from around the world are donating stem cells to scientists. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh are studying these stem cells with the hope of better understanding the condition and developing newer, more effective treatments for it.

A sample of skin is obtained from the donor and the stem cells acquired from this sample are turned into neurons in the laboratory. Samples are also obtained from unaffected members of the bipolar individual’s family for comparison purposes. This method is preferred because it reduces the number of animals used for medical research. In addition, the researchers are able to accurately study the effect of bipolar disorder on human brain cells.

Roslin Cell Sciences, a biotechnology company in the UK, is banking the stem cells and will expand them before making them available to academic and commercial researchers. Distribution will take place through the newly established European Bank for Induced Pluripotent Cells.

University of Michigan Research

Researchers at the University of Michigan have created the first model for treatment of bipolar disorder with stem cells. The hope is to discover the origin of the condition and develop newer treatments, according to a study published in Translational Psychiatry.

Similar to the research across the pond, investigators in Michigan have obtained skin samples from people with the disorder and people unaffected by it. These skin cells have been converted into iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells) in the carefully controlled environment of the laboratory. These iPSCs, in turn, have been converted to human neurons. The brain cells of bipolar people have been found to be significantly different from the brain cells of unaffected people.

Gene Expression in Bipolar Patients

Researchers have found that the neurons of bipolar patients express more calcium receptors than the neurons of unaffected individuals. Calcium signals are vital to neuronal development, and this finding suggests that bipolar disorder develops as a result of abnormalities in early brain development.

In addition, the team found that lithium—a mood-regulator frequently used to treat bipolar patients—causes the signaling patterns to change. More differences in the neurons of bipolar patients have been identified, including differences in microRNA expression.

Personalized Treatment for Bipolar Disorder

At present, a variety of drugs such as mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants are used to control symptoms of bipolar disorder, but each patient reacts and responds to them differently. The stem cell model developed by the University of Michigan research team could be the beginning of personalized treatment for bipolar patients. These cell lines can be used to test the effect of different drugs proactively, instead of relying on trial and error or fortuitously discovering an effective therapy.



Mira Swave, MD

Contributor at Regenerative Medicine Now

Mira Swave, M.D. is a specialist in the field of Regenerative Medicine.
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