Alzheimer's Breakthrough: Replicating Brain Cells

Researchers in Boston replicated human brain cells to study Alzheimer’s, advancing how to study the disease in the future and find drugs to treat it.

Lead researcher, Rudolph E. Tanzi of Massachusetts General Hospital, received a suggestion from a colleague to grow human brain cells in a gel so they could form networks as they would in the brain. Researchers then gave the network the neurons genes for Alzheimer’s. Within weeks they saw the defining features of the disease form in their petri dish system.

Before the petri dish system, researchers could only use mice to run experiments surrounding Alzheimer’s. Now the results of these tests can be more effective with replicated human brain cells.

This breakthrough has led the scientists to confirm a long theorized hypothesis that could never before be proven about what triggers the disease. The answer is a deposit of protein in the brain known as beta amyloid that accumulates and turns into plaques. Neurons respond to this process by making tangles, which causes dementia to begin.

Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, an Alzheimer’s researcher at Duke University, told The New York Times, “It is a giant step forward for the field. It could dramatically accelerate testing of new drug candidates.”

Though the petri dish system doesn’t have the immune system cells that contribute to the deterioration of the brain once Alzheimer’s begins, the petri dish has great benefits. Researchers can now cheaply and easily test drugs that can stop the process of the disease entirely.

Dr. Tanzi’s next project includes testing 1,200 drugs on the market and 5,000 experimental ones that have finished the first stage of clinical testing. Tanzi claimed that because of this new system, researchers “can test hundreds of thousands of drugs in a matter of months.”

Dr. Sam Gandy of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York wants to use the petri dish to study the effects of genes that predispose someone to have Alzheimer’s.

To grow the neurons in the petri dish, the Boston researchers used human embryonic stem cells and grew them in a mixture of chemicals to replicate the brain cells. Because of the use of human embryonic stem cells, Tanzi’s research may face backlash from certain pro-life groups.

The online journal Nature published the results of the Alzheimer’s research that can replicate human brain cells on Sunday.


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