Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center have reached a new milestone in their efforts to harness the immune system to slow or halt the progression of Parkinson’s disease.

In an early clinical trial in humans, the researchers used an existing drug to shift a population of white blood cells from a destructive mode to a protective state that can help defend against brain injury.

While the drug is sometimes used in patients receiving chemotherapy, it has not been used previously in Parkinson’s.

Not only did the researchers document the shift through blood tests, molecular studies and brain imaging, but they also saw preliminary evidence of improved motor skills in several patients who received the treatment, including a reduction in the disease’s characteristic tremors and improvements in tasks such as buttoning a shirt.

Currently, drugs and other treatments can be used to fight symptoms, but the effects generally give way to the disease in the long run.

The results of the trial indicate that researchers, for the first time, may be able to go beyond treating symptoms to slowing or halting the disease itself.

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