Author ORCID Identifier

Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation





First Advisor

Dr. Greg A. Gerhardt

Second Advisor

Dr. Craig G. van Horne


Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a disorder of the nervous system that causes problems with movement (motor symptoms) as well as other problems such as mood disorders, cognitive changes, sleep disorders, constipation, pain, and other non-motor symptoms. The severity of PD symptoms worsens over time as the disease progresses, and while there are treatments for the motor and some non-motor symptoms there is no known cure for PD. Thus there is a high demand for therapies to slow the progressive neurodegeneration observed in PD. Two clinical trials at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine (NCT02369003, NCT01833364) are currently underway that aim to develop a disease-modifying therapy that slows the progression of PD. These clinical trials are evaluating the safety and feasibility of an autologous peripheral nerve graft to the substantia nigra in combination with Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) for the treatment of PD. By grafting peripheral nerve tissue to the Substantia Nigra, the researchers aim to introduce peripheral nerve tissue, which is capable of functional regeneration after injury, to the degenerating Substantia Nigra of patients with PD. The central hypothesis of these clinical trials is that the grafted tissue will slow degeneration of the target brain region through neural repair actions of Schwann cells as well as other pro-regenerative features of the peripheral nerve tissue.

This dissertation details analysis of the peripheral nerve tissue used in the above clinical trials with respect to tissue composition and gene expression, both of injury-naive human peripheral nerve as well as the post-conditioning injury nerve tissue used in the grafting procedure. RNA-seq analysis of sural nerve tissue pre and post-conditioning show significant changes in gene expression corresponding with transdifferentiation of Schwann cells from a myelinating to a repair phenotype, release of growth factors, activation of macrophages and other immune cells, and an increase in anti-apoptotic and neuroprotective gene transcripts. These results reveal in vivo gene expression changes involved in the human peripheral nerve injury repair process, which has relevance beyond this clinical trial to the fields of Schwann cell biology and peripheral nerve repair. To assess the neurobiology of the graft post-implantation we developed an animal model of the grafting procedure, termed Neuro-Avatars, which feature human graft tissue implanted into athymic nude rats. Survival and infiltration of human graft cells into the host brain were shown using immunohistochemistry of Human Nuclear Antigen. Surgical methods and outcomes from the ongoing development of this animal model are reported. To connect the results of these laboratory studies to the clinical trial we compared the severity of motor symptoms before surgery to one year post-surgery in patients who received the analyzed graft tissue. Motor symptom severity was assessed using the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale Part III. Finally, the implications and future directions of this research is discussed. In summary, this dissertation advances the translational science cycle by using clinical trial findings and samples to answer basic science questions that will in turn guide future clinical trial design.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Funding Information

This research was supported by:

National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, through grant UL1TR000117

Ann Hanley Parkinson's Research Fund

Braden Clark Fellowship