One of the commonest causes of premature senility, Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive mental deterioration that occurs in middle or old age due to generalized degeneration of the brain. So far, scientists have failed to find any drug that can slow the onset of the disease and a major reason being cited for this is that animal testing, where most research begins, doesn’t often produce favorable results that can predict very well what will happen to people with the disease.
Now, some Alzheimer’s disease scientists have taken to stem cell research and they are hopeful that the novel technique would enable more efficient testing of experimental drugs in the lab rather than in clinical trials with people. Moreover, clinical trials of drugs in humans are a quite costly and time consuming.
Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, used stem cells, which can differentiate into a number of specialized cell types, to create neurons with characteristics of Alzheimer’s.
Susan Solomon, chief executive of the nonprofit New York Stem Cell Foundation, which funds and conducts research involving stem cells, says, “Stem cells give you a window into a living human being’s brain, and that’s really extraordinary”.
In an early development, scientists at University of California, San Diego used stem cells, which can differentiate into a number of specialized cell types, to create neurons with characteristics of Alzheimer’s. Then they tested two experimental drugs, including one that had previously been withdrawn from a clinical trial because it seemed to worsen disease symptoms rather than help. In testing the drug on the stem cell-derived neurons, the researchers found that for certain patients with a particular genetic mutation, the dosage received in the clinical trial was likely ineffective.
In the realm of treatment, one approach is to use a patient’s own stem cells to repair damaged tissue—creating treatment specific to that individual. With some diseases, stem cells produce new, healthy tissue in place of damaged tissue, although it isn’t clear how well that would work in the brain with neurological disorders. Another goal is to create stem cell lines that could be scaled up and used to treat larger patient populations, similar to the way small-molecule drugs and biologics therapies are used now.
Finding a drug to slow the onset of Alzheimer’s, the major cause of dementia in older people, has been frustratingly elusive. That is partly because animal testing, where most research begins, doesn’t often produce results that predict very well what will happen to people with Alzheimer’s. And clinical trials of drugs in humans are costly and time consuming.