In the United States today, nearly six million people are living with Alzheimer’s disease. That number is expected to reach 14 million by 2050. Already Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the country and drains an estimated $290 billion a year from our economy. There is no effective treatment for this memory-robbing disorder and clinical trials are offering little cause for hope.
At the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM), stem cell scientists are pioneering new methods to overcome a challenge inherent to 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?
Right now, Dr. Jessica Young and her ISCRM colleague Dr. Sumie Jayadev are using stem cells from deceased Alzheimer’s patients to study the early biological processes that may contribute to the onset of the disease. Using this “disease-in-a-dish” model, ISCRM researchers can take any cell from a patient and reprogram it, giving it the potential to become any kind of cell in the body, including brain cells. 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.
Scientists at ISCRM are using stem cells to model the early biological drivers of Alzheimer’s disease and to identify potential therapeutic targets. While no therapies are in development, there is reason for optimism. Collaboration is one major source of momentum. Dr. Young and her lab are part of a team effort – joining forces with the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC), the ACT Study, Sage Bionetworks, and others in Seattle’s biotech community – to accelerate discovery by sharing troves of data and human tissue. Collectively, this research community is generating a wealth of genetic and pathological information about the human brain and the nature of neurodegenerative diseases.