Published on: July 17, 2012
by Pat Brennan for OC Register:
Human neural stem cells restored memory in mice with brain symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease, UC Irvine scientists reported Tuesday, opening the door to eventual treatment for human sufferers.
The announcement, made at an Alzheimer’s science conference in Vancouver, involves versatile though still largely mysterious neural stem cells grown in the lab by StemCells Inc., of Newark, Ca.
The cells, researchers at UCI and elsewhere have shown, can become many types of cells once injected into the body — restoring limb movement in mice with crushed spines, halting blindness in rats and, now, improving memory and brain function in mice bred to exhibit the kinds of impairment seen in Alzheimer’s.
“You’ve probably heard about the God particle scientists have been working on,” said Martin McGlynn, president and CEO of StemCells Inc. “This isn’t quite the God cell, but it’s an incredibly fascinating biological agent.”
Over the past 12 to 18 months, scientists including Frank LaFerla, director of UCI MIND, worked on a treatment involving injection of the human neural stem cells into the brains of two kinds of mouse “models” — those bred to model the effects of Alzheimer’s, and those bred to model the loss of neurons in a part of the brain known as the hippocampus.
“Both animal models reported improvement in memory function, in a statistical way,” McGlynn said.
Matthew Blurton-Jones, an assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior at UCI, presented the results of the Alzheimer’s work Tuesday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.
Part of the scientists’ aim was to learn whether human neural cells placed in mice functioned as well as mouse neural cells.
“That is one of the fascinating things about this,” McGlynn said. “They look like, smell like, walk like, dance like a human neural stem cell, (but) they’re fully regulated and submissive to the mouse, to the host.”
The cells take their cues from the body they are placed in, and the immediate cellular environment, to regenerate tissue and function in the area.
They are at the heart of a treatment for spinal cord injury, developed by StemCells Inc. and the UCI husband-wife research team of Brian Cummings and Aileen Anderson, that is now being tested on human patients in clinical trials in Switzerland.
The cells are derived from the donated brain tissue of surgically aborted fetuses, McGlynn said, and can grow readily in the laboratory for use in a variety of scientific settings.
“You can grow up billions of cells in a cell bank and keep them in cryopreserved form,” he said.
The treatment also might offer a new approach to curbing the effects of Alzheimer’s. While much research focuses on reducing the plaques that build up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, the stem-cell treatment appears to bypass the plaques, leaving them unaffected, and still results in improved memory — suggesting that damage from Alzheimer’s might be done earlier in the progression of the disease, before the plaques form obvious clumps.
“This could well be a powerful tool in the overall armamentarium one can bring to battle in fighting Alzheimer’s disease,” McGlynn said, though he cautioned that “we’re not necessarily suggesting this is a cure for Alzheimer’s, or that this is a silver bullet.”
StemCells Inc. and the UCI scientists are now awaiting a decision from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine on whether to approve grant funding that would lead to human trials of the Alzheimer’s treatment.
Although it’s great to celebrate the big achievements, it’s also important to celebrate the small wins.
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