Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is estimated to affect 5.3 million people of all ages in the United States today. The biggest impact is on those aged 65 or older, accounting for 96% of all Alzheimer’s cases. That’s one in every three seniors, of which over two-thirds are women. While so many are living with the disease, only about 45 percent know it. On the other hand, about 90 percent of the more than 15 million Americans living with cancer are properly diagnosed.
It’s impossible to be treated for a disease you don’t know you have. With a new case developing every 67 seconds and no currently available FDA-approved treatment options that have proven to slow or reverse the disease, the prospect of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is frightening. That’s why researchers continue to work diligently toward understanding this sixth-leading cause of American deaths.
Since the discovery of the disease in 1906, Alzheimer’s researchers conducting pre-trial experiments only had mice to work with. However, this disease is particularly human-specific, so the disease developed in the mice is an imperfect model for testing. This led to complications in the data and setbacks in the development of new treatments.
One Small Step for Two Neuroscientists, One Giant Leap for Alzheimer’s Research
As publicized in October 2014, neuroscientists Rudolph Tanzi and Doo Yeon Kim of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston may have found a way around the mouse problem. The two researchers managed to culture human brain cells, or neurons, in a commercially-available stem-cell gel in a petri dish, wherein they formed actual neural networks. Moreover, when introduced to Alzheimer’s-causing genes, the cells responded exactly as those in a live human brain, forming the two defining features of the disease: plaques, like clumpy Brillo-pads, and tangles, like little bowls of spaghetti.
The petri dish model isn’t perfect. Real human brains have defense mechanisms like immune system cells that have yet to be introduced in Kim and Tanzi’s research. However, this model is the first ever to allow human Alzheimer’s research without the cost and ethical limitations of human clinical trials. Moreover, the lack of immune systems cells is not necessarily a bad thing, as it models the brain of a person with an immune system weakened by age or other diseases.
Tanzi has plans to test over 1,200 drugs currently on the market and 5,000 still in development. He and his colleagues are also using the petri dish model to investigate the protein responsible for plaque formation, which they believe to be beta-amyloid. The big picture is clear: any drug that could potentially prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s in humans can now fully prove its effectiveness in humans.
To learn more about Alzheimer’s treatment, please contact KCA Neurology. 615.550.1800.