Repairing the Failing Brain, a Public Forum on Stem Cells and Neurodegenerative Disease

“It can sometimes seem that research is moving too slowly to help real patients, but from the speakers tonight, it sounds like stem cell therapies are opening more avenues and creating more optimism and hope for treatments for specific disorders in the next decade.”  – Public Forum Attendee

Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases impact millions of people and their families. Unfortunately, there are currently few effective treatments for these devastating disorders.  Researchers at the UW Medicine Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM) are tapping into the tremendous power of stem cells to change that.

Five scientists sit a long table
The panel for Repairing the Failing Brain (from left to right): Brad Rolf, M.S., CGC, Dr. Lorenz Studer, Dr. Jessica Young, Dr. C. Keene, and Dr. Eric Larson

On Wednesday January 9th, ISCRM presented Repairing the Public Brain, a public forum on the prospect of stem cell-based approaches to treating disorders affecting the brain.  Before a packed house in the Orin Smith Auditorium on UW Medicine’s South Lake Union Campus, a panel of experts shared their latest research with an inquisitive, engaged audience of scientists, patients, and other stakeholders.

To watch the full video recording of the Public Forum, please click HERE!

After a welcome by ISCRM Director Chuck Murry and an introduction by Dr. Sumie Jayadev, the stage belonged to Dr. Eric Larson, Executive Director and Senior Investigator, Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute.

A Learning, Living Laboratory of Healthy Aging

Dr. Larson focused his presentation on the Adult Changes in Thought (ACT) Study, a collaboration between Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute and the University of Washington that he characterized as a “learning, living laboratory of healthy aging.” Over the last three decades, the ACT study has enrolled and followed thousands of older patients while deepening understanding about how the brain ages and exploring risk and resilience factors related to brain diseases.

Neuropathology, Selective Vulnerability, and Neurons in Dishes

While Dr. Larson and his team have looked far and wide – and across time – at how people live their lives, Dr. C. Dirk Keene has been peering inward at the brain itself. In his presentation, Dr. Keene, Associate Professor of Pathology at UW School of Medicine, talked about the concept of Selective Vulnerability – the principle that different neurodegenerative disorders affect the brain differently. Dr. Keene also explained how combing data from the lab and data from community studies helps researchers create models for studying disease – and grow “neurons in dishes” using stem cells.

Disease in a Dish Modeling

Scientists engaged in a panel discussion
Dr. Lorenz Studer, Founder and Director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, discusses progress in Parkinson’s research at the Public Forum.

Dr. Jessica Young, Assistant Professor of Pathology at UW School of Medicine, posed a question at the heart of brain research. Given the uniquely protective nature of the brain, how do we look at living cells to study the factors that cause Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases? Dr. Young explain how her lab can take any cell from a patient and reprogram it, giving it the potential to become any kind of cell in the body, including neurons. These induced pluripotent stem cells allow researchers to explore how to prevent harmful proteins from building up in the brain and to test potential drugs in ways that would not be possible with actual human tissue.

 Stem Cells as Drugs – Optimism for the Future

In the final presentation, Dr. Lorenz Studer, Founder and Director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, shared the encouraging progress in his team’s long-term effort to harness stem cells as drugs to treat Parkinson’s Disease.  After detailing the limits of existing interventions, based on drugs and therapies, Dr. Studer explained how cell therapy is moving toward human clinical trials, hopefully as soon as 2019.

The Public’s Turn

Following Dr. Studer’s presentation, the panel – joined by Brad Rolf, Genetic Counselor at the Genetic Medicine Clinic at UW Medical Center – fielded thoughtful, occasionally emotional, questions from the audience. The discussion in the Q&A session was wide ranging, touching on topics like eligibility for clinical trials, the potential of induced pluripotent stem cells, the demographics of patients seeking genetic testing, the importance of stem cell models, personal stories of patients living with brain disorders, and the prospect of new treatments over the next decade.