Northwestern Medicine researchers for the first time have transformed a human embryonic stem cell into a critical type of neuron that dies early in Alzheimer's disease and is a major cause of memory loss.
This new ability to reprogram stem cells and grow a limitless supply of the human neurons will enable a rapid wave of drug testing for Alzheimer's disease, allow researchers to study why the neurons die and could potentially lead to transplanting the new neurons into people with Alzheimer's.
The paper will be published March 4 in the journal Stem Cells.
These critical neurons, called basal forebrain cholinergic neurons, help the hippocampus retrieve memories in the brain. In early Alzheimer's, the ability to retrieve memories is lost, not the memories themselves. There is a relatively small population of these neurons in the brain, and their loss has a swift and devastating effect on the ability to remember.
"Now that we have learned how to make these cells, we can study them in a tissue culture dish and figure out what we can do to prevent them from dying," said senior study author Jack Kessler, M.D., chair of neurology and the Davee Professor of Stem Cell Biology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
The lead author of the paper is Christopher Bissonnette, a former doctoral student in neurology who labored for six years in Kessler's lab to crack the genetic code of the stem cells to produce the neurons. His research was motivated by his grandfather's death from Alzheimer's.
"This technique to produce the neurons allows for an almost infinite number of these cells to be grown in labs, allowing other scientists the ability to study why this one population of cells selectively dies in Alzheimer's disease," Bissonnette said.
The ability to make the cells also means researchers can quickly test thousands of different drugs to see which ones may keep the cells alive when they are in a challenging environment. This rapid testing technique is called high-throughput screening. ...
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