Scientists hail stem cells as exciting new approach to find dementia treatments

Researchers at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference 2016 in Manchester have highlighted the promise of stem cells for testing new drugs to help tackle diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The technique, which is based on Nobel Prize-winning research, harnesses the unique properties of stem cells to recreate processes that happen in the human brain in the laboratory.

Stem cells have the remarkable ability to turn into any cell in the body. In the last decade, scientists have developed a pioneering technique to turn adult cells, such as skin cells, in to stem cells. By exposing these cells to a precise set of conditions they can then transform them into any type of cell – including nerve cells like those in the brain. The technique has opened new doors in many fields of science and is especially valuable to scientists studying brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Dr Steven Moore, an expert in stem cell research at the University of Cambridge’s Gurdon institute, home to the Alzheimer’s Research UK Stem Cell Research Centre, used the platform to give an overview of the latest progress in this field. He said:

“Directly studying what is happening in the brain in diseases like Alzheimer’s in living people is very difficult. While new brain scan techniques are shedding more light on some of the changes taking place, stem cell techniques are allowing us to grow nerve cells in the laboratory that behave very much like cells in the brain. Our research has shown that these nerve cells even recreate some of the key biological changes that cause dementia in people. Research with these cells is transforming how we understand the biological chain of events that leads to nerve cell damage in diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“Not only are we able to study disease mechanisms in this way, excitingly, we can also introduce potential treatments into these nerve cells and see which compounds are able to affect the harmful processes and help to prevent damage. This application makes using these cells even more valuable in dementia research and could allow us to screen new compounds far more quickly than ever before – helping to fast-track this important stage of drug development.”

Dr Zam Cader, of the University of Oxford, also spoke out about the use of stem cells in dementia research. He said:

“Methods of testing new drugs that involve people or animals are vital steps on the road to new treatments, but can also be expensive and time-consuming. Lab-grown nerve cells can’t replace these steps but they can give us an indication of whether it is worth taking a drug on to further testing.”

“While stem cells are revolutionising the way many scientists are addressing big unanswered questions in dementia research, key challenges remain in ensuring nerve cells grown in this way faithfully recreate what happens in the brain and provide genuine insights into diseases like Alzheimer’s. Stem cell techniques are one of a number of emerging new approaches for studying the diseases that cause dementia and investment in developing this area of research will be vital in speeding up the search for much-needed new treatments.”

Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“In recent years, advances in the ability to create and manipulate stem cells have meant that scientists have another powerful tool at their disposal in the hunt for new ways to better understand the biology of dementia.  Alzheimer’s Research UK is investing extensively in this promising area, including – with support of the Alborada Trust – £2 million into our dedicated Stem Cell Research Centre.

“With no new drug treatments licenced for Alzheimer’s since 2002, it is encouraging that these pioneering techniques are directly helping researchers working in drug development. Improved methods for screening drugs ensures that the limited resources allocated to dementia research are used as effectively as possible. There are 850,000 people in the UK living with dementia and many more have a family member or loved one with the condition. It is vital that we continue to invest in research to bring new about new ways of helping these people as soon as possible.”

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