Skin Cells May Offer New Hope For Alzheimer's

Kyle 2012/06/07 21:36:28

PHOTO: PET scans comparing Alzheimer's sufferer's brain with healthy brain.

PET scans comparing Alzheimer's sufferer's brain with healthy brain. (Jonathan Selig/Getty Images)

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A team of scientists has discovered what could be a novel source for researching and potentially treating Alzheimer's disease and other conditions involving the destruction of brain cells.

Researchers at the University of California San Francisco-affiliated
Gladstone Institutes converted skin cells from mice and humans into
brain stem cells
with the use of a protein called Sox2. Using only this protein to
transform the skin cells into neuron stem cells is unusual. Normally,
the conversion process is much more complex.

Neuron stem cells are cells that can be changed into the nerve cells and
the cells that support them in the brain. The neuronal stem cells
formed in this study are unique because they were prepared in a way the
prevented them from becoming tumors, which is what often happens as stem
cells differentiate, explained David Teplow, professor of neurology and
director of the Easton Center for Alzheimer's Disease Research at UCLA.
Teplow was not involved in the study, but is familiar with this type
of research.

These immature brain stem cells then developed into different types of
functional brain cells, which were eventually able to be integrated into
mouse brains.

The idea that these cells can become fully functioning brain tissue is
significant, the authors explained, because by becoming part of the
brain, the cells can replace the cells killed off by the disease

These cells also offer a potential way to learn about the mechanisms
behind neurodegenerative disorders as well as lead to research into new
drugs, explained Dr. Yadong Huang, a study co-author and associate
investigator at the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease.

"The next step is, we are trying to get these skin cells from patients
with this disease so we can reprogram and convert the diseased cells
into these neuron stem cells and develop those into neurons in culture,"
he said.

After that, researchers can study how these diseases develop based on what's observed in culture dishes.

"It's really hard to get neurons from human brains for research, and
now, we can generate them," Huang said. "Secondly, we can do some drug
screening. If we have patient-specific neurons in culture, we can test
some or develop some drugs to see how they work on these neurons."

These neuron stem cells, Huang explained, also don't develop into tumors as other types of stem cells are prone to do.

"This is a significant step forward," said Teplow. "Thus far, the
challenges with stem cells have been to make the right cells and also be
able to make a cell preparation where the risk of having cells that can
form tumors is low." Teplow was not involved in Huang's study.

There are still a number of steps this area of research must undergo
determining whether these cells can really replace lost brain cells, but
experts are encouraged.

"One of the target areas of the brain in Alzheimer's disease is the
hippocampus, where there is tremendous loss of neurons, and there is
also loss in the outer part of the brain as it progresses," Teplow said.
"If we can introduce these cells into these two areas to replenish
cells that are lost, we can theoretically reverse the disease."

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