On this World Parkinson’s Day today, Sir Ian Wilmut, Ph.D., the leader of the research team that cloned Dolly the Sheep, disclosed that he has been diagnosed with the disease—and voiced support for a new Scottish research effort aimed at developing treatments for the neurodegenerative disorder.

Researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Dundee have created the Dundee-Edinburgh Parkinson’s Research Initiative, with the goals of investigating what causes Parkinson’s disease, and translating scientific discoveries into new therapies.

The Initiative is scheduled to be formally launched on Friday at a public event at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

The Initiative’s ultimate aim is to discover new approaches to predicting and preventing Parkinson’s—as well as facilitating clinical testing of therapies aimed at slowing or reversing disease progression. According to the Initiative, Scottish patients who wish to participate in clinical studies must travel to research centers hours away in England, Wales, or overseas.

More than 12,000 people live with Parkinson’s disease in Scotland, according to the Initiative, which added that the number across the U.K. is expected to double in the next 50 years due to population growth and longer lifespans.

“Initiatives of this kind are very effective not only because they bring more people together, but because they will include people with different experience and expertise,” Sir Ian said in a statement. “It was from such a rich seedbed that Dolly developed, and we can hope for similar benefits in this project.”

Dolly touched off controversy over cloning soon after she was born July 5, 1996, healthy and weighing 6.6 kg (14.55 pounds), though her birth wasn’t announced until February 22, 1997. The research leading to that event began years earlier, when scientists doubted that cloning adults was possible, based on amphibian research that appeared to be confirmed by early mammal studies.

“Dolly was the first animal to be born following transfer of a nucleus from an adult donor. Although this success followed research over several decades in amphibians and laboratory mammals, it followed specifically from the recognition of the need to co-ordinate the cell cycles of donor nucleus and recipient oocyte,” Sir Ian and co-author Jane Taylor, Ph.D., of University of Edinburgh, recalled in “Cloning After Dolly,” a commentary published online February 1 in the journal Cellular Reprogramming, published by GEN publisher Mary Ann Liebert Inc., and excerpted in GEN.

Doing the Impossible

The successful cloning of Dolly also showed that cells from anywhere in the body could be made to behave like a newly fertilized egg, something that researchers previously viewed as impossible. That discovery enabled others to develop a method of using adult cells to produce reprogrammable cells that could develop into any kind of tissue in the body, known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

According to the Initiative, the first clinical trials of iPSCs for Parkinson’s disease are to begin in Japan later this year. Within the U.K., Edinburgh researchers were the first to produce iPSCs in the lab from patients with Parkinson’s.

“People with Parkinson’s urgently require access to earlier and more accurate diagnosis, better prediction of how their disease will progress, and most importantly, the opportunity to participate in clinical trials of new treatments,” stated Tilo Kunath, Ph.D., of the Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh. “This new research partnership aims to make these hopes a reality for people in Scotland.”

Dario Alessi, Ph.D., of the University of Dundee, noted that all attempts to slow the progression of Parkinson’s have thus far failed; the most widely-used Parkinson’s drug, levodopa was first advanced into the clinic in 1967.

“In recent years, our knowledge of the genetics and biology underlining Parkinson’s disease has exploded,” Dr. Alessi added. “I feel optimistic and it is not unrealistic that with a coordinated research effort, major strides towards better treating Parkinson’s disease can be made.”

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