Rudolph Tanzi, a 1993 Pew biomedical scholar and the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, has led an effort to create the first real model of Alzheimer’s disease in a petri dish using human brain cells. Findings of that work, published by Nature Oct. 12, could potentially solve some of the challenges facing researchers who are studying the disease.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia in the U.S., with 469,000 new diagnoses each year. To date, the telltale “tangling” of human brain cells associated with the disease could not be recreated inside a petri dish. Instead, the most reliable research method involved using rats with a similar, but not identical, form of the disease. But this practice has its limitations: More than 20 Alzheimer’s therapies that have had positive results in mice have failed when tested on humans.
The new approach developed by Tanzi and Doo Yeon Kim, a Massachusetts General Hospital neuroscientist, is important because it investigates Alzheimer’s using human neurons. The researchers have found a way to mimic the disease in human cells by growing neurons in a gel-like medium, in which they formed the twisted networks that resemble those of a diseased brain.
This research advancement could help identify the genetic mechanisms responsible for the onset of the disease, which could enable researchers to “test hundreds of thousands of drugs in a matter of months,” said Tanzi.
“It’s a giant step forward for the field,” said Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, an Alzheimer’s researcher at Duke University. “The work being done by Tanzi and Kim could dramatically accelerate testing of new drug candidates.”
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