New Hope for Alzheimer’s Treatment – iPS Cells to the Rescue?

Over 5 million Americans are living with this heritable form of dementia for which there is no cure. Caring for patients with Alzheimer’s disease is estimated to cost over $200 billion dollars annually, not to mention the untold costs to family members and care givers. This year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference out of Vancouver offered advances in experimental systems, diagnostics, and treatments.

One particularly striking report is that Scott Noggle’s group from the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) have succeeded in culturing skin cells from Alzheimer’s patients and inducing them to form brain cells. Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive condition in which certain cells of the brain called cholinergic basal forebrain neurons start to die. The precise cause of this is unknown, and, given the differences between patient symptoms, there are likely multiple underlying pathologies.

Noggle and his colleagues took advantage of new advances in stem cell technology to try to understand how Alzheimer’s disease manifests. First, they took skin cells from 12 patients with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and induced these cells to form pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells. iPS cells have the ability, given the right chemical cues, to form any cell of the body. The scientists then coaxed these iPS cells to form cholinergic basal forebrain cells, the cells that are affected in the disease.

The fact that cells were taken from 12 patients and several healthy individuals means that Noggle’s team can now look for genetic and physiological defects that might cause the confusion, aggressive behaviors, and long-term memory loss that are indicitive of Alzheimer’s disease. Knowing how each of the 12 patients progressed will allow the scientists to link symptoms with physiological changes at the cellular level. This is a ground-breaking move, as until know studying brain cells from patients was impossible.

Not only do these cells represent an invaluable research tool, “Patient derived AD cells will prove invaluable for future research advances,” said NYSCF CEO Susan Solomon. “They will be a critical tool in the drug discovery process, as potential drugs could be tested directly on these cells.” She also pointed out that this work will reduce the number of drug tests performed on laboratory animals such as mice and rats.

Perhaps the most exciting downstream consequence of this work will be to understand the global changes that lead to neuron loss, and, with such information, the lives of many millions of people living with dementia can be changed for the better.


NYSCF. New York Stem Cell Foundation scientists featured at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference for new model of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). July 16, 2012.

Image via Filipchuk Oleg Vasiliovich / Shutterstock.

Katie Pratt, PhD

Katie Pratt, PhD, is a science communicator based in Providence, RI. She holds a PhD in molecular biology from Brown University.
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