Stem Cell Technology Reveals Clues to Alzheimer’s

Scientists in the US have used stem cells from patients to overcome the challenge of obtaining live brain cells, allowing them to learn more about the causes of Alzheimer’s. The study, published online today in the journal Nature, provides new opportunities for scientists to model the complex disease.

Induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, are cells which have been taken from one part of the body and can be reprogrammed into other cell types. They allow scientists to overcome the challenge of obtaining live cells from the brain – as they can take skin cells from people and transform them into brain cells.

The scientists used iPSCs to investigate what goes wrong in brain cells of people with both late-onset Alzheimer’s, and those with familial Alzheimer’s – an inherited form which tends to affect people at a younger age. Skin cells (or fibroblasts) were obtained from two people with familial Alzheimer’s, two people with late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and two people without dementia to act as controls. The fibroblast cells were transformed into brain nerve cells in the lab and the scientists looked for features of Alzheimer’s in these cells.

The study showed that nerve cells derived from the two volunteers with familial Alzheimer’s and one of those with late-onset Alzheimer’s produced high levels of amyloid and tau, two characteristic proteins involved in Alzheimer’s. They also produced high levels of a protein called active GSK-3β which can be responsible for turning tau into its more toxic form. They also found that one particular inhibitor of amyloid production could reduce the levels of all three proteins in these cells.

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“Induced pluripotent stem cells have the potential to provide a great resource for scientists to study diseases such as Alzheimer’s – where getting access to human brain cells to study is a huge challenge. The authors have shown that these cells can reveal vital clues about the biological changes taking place during Alzheimer’s and we hope further studies can expand on these early findings.

“In light of the recent European ban on patents using human embryonic stem cells, it may prove important to increase our use of technology using these non-embryonic stem cells. We hope that studies like this one will drive scientific research forward and help us to understand the biology behind different forms of Alzheimer’s and test new treatments. With 820,000 in the UK living with dementia, the need for such research has never been greater.”

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