On Sunday, a major step for Alzheimer’s research was announced in the publication Nature– “Alzheimer’s in a Dish.” The researchers have successfully put together a petri dish of human brain cells that are able to develop the structural indicators of Alzheimer’s. This was done by growing human brain cells in a gel, allowing the cells to establish networks the way they would in an actual brain. The cells then developed plaques and tangles, the defining features of Alzheimer’s.
This achievement is significant in that it offers scientists a new cost effective and relevant way of studying the disease. Until this point, the majority of research has been conducted on mice, which, due to differences in biological make up, developed a different form of the disease to that of humans.
It is a giant step forward for the field… It could dramatically accelerate testing of new drug candidates.”- Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, Alzheimer’s researcher at Duke University.
While this is a step for Alzheimer’s research, a challenge to the new system remains the fact that the petri dish system is not an actual human brain. While the system has the same cellular systems, it lacks other components of human biology, such as immune system cells, that often have a roll in the deterioration of the disease.
The discovery is primarily considered to be most helpful in determining the root cause of Alzheimer’s in patients. One hypothesis, the amyloid hypothesis suggests beta amyloids accumulate in the brain which then build to become plagues. Neurons then respond by making tangles, causing dementia. While this hypothesis has been pointed to for 30 years at the root of the disease, there has never been solid proof. When tested in mice, the rodents developed plaques but never tangles. Yet because the animals were the closest scientists had to a subject to study, drugs for humans were based on success in curing the mice had little effect on human subjects.
The lack of a relevant subject has been a major challenge to the development of drugs to fight Alzheimer’s. The new development brings hope of greater understanding of the disease as well as the development of more effective therapies.
Read more here- “Breakthrough Replicates Human Brain Cells for Use in Alzheimer’s Research,”(Gina Kolata, The New York Times)