Testing new drugs in ‘Alzheimer’s in a dish’

Researchers have developed a new ‘Alzheimer’s in a dish’ technique that could allow new treatments to be tested rapidly and cheaply. The study is published on 12 October in the journal Nature.

Posted on 13th October 2014

A team of researchers, based in the United Sates, in collaboration with colleagues in South Korea and Germany, have developed a new approach for studying Alzheimer’s disease in the lab. The scientists used human nerve cells and modified their DNA sequence so that it carried the same mutation seen in people with familial Alzheimer’s disease. Due to this mutation, the modified nerve cells produced large amounts of amyloid, a major culprit in the progression of Alzheimer’s. Rather than growing the cells flat in a dish, the cells grew in a gel, to create a 3D structure, a little more like what is seen in the brain than the typical lab dish.

Not only did this new technique reproduce the amyloid seen in Alzheimer’s, but a second toxic protein, modified tau was also observed. The researchers showed that if they reduced the amount of toxic amyloid, then the amount of modified tau also decreased. This suggests that modified tau exists as a consequence of amyloid. Besides shedding light on the chain of events that lead to the damage seen in Alzheimer’s, this new technique may provide scientists with a tool for testing new drugs that target different stages of disease progression.

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:

“As we learn more about the different biological processes that lead to Alzheimer’s, we are faced with new challenges to recreate these conditions in the laboratory to enable them to be studied. This is a new way to study the progression of Alzheimer’s in a dish of nerve cells, reproducing two of the hallmark proteins of the disease. As well as giving a greater insight into the chain of biological events that lead to the disease taking hold, the technique also provides a valuable opportunity for drug testing.

“While this approach can’t reproduce all the changes that occur in the human brain during Alzheimer’s, such as how other cell types besides nerve cells might be involved, innovations like this provide essential new tools in our hunt for new treatments. Alzheimer’s Research UK is investing extensively in this area, including £2 million pounds towards research that aims to generate sophisticated drug-screening tools using stem cells donated by patients.”

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