20 February 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 645
Skin cells from volunteers with Down's syndrome have been turned into brain cells in order to provide a new model for researchers to study Alzheimer's disease.
People with Down's syndrome are at high risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and show the first signs of the disease around 40 years earlier than those in the general population. To try and understand why this is, Cambridge University, where this research took place, has also launched a separate £1 million brain imaging study.
In the current study, published in Science Translational Medicine, researchers used a two-step process to turn volunteers' skin cells into brain cells with Alzheimer's disease. The skin cells were first transformed into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which can be made to turn into almost any cell type in the body. Here, the iPS cells were turned into nerve cells which behaved identically to cells in the human brain.
After being grown for a short period of time in the lab, the newly-created cells showed all the characteristics of brain cells taken from Alzheimer's disease patients post-mortem. It is hoped that the cells will therefore provide an easier way for researchers to study how the disease starts and progresses.Alzheimer's disease can take years or even decades to develop. As Dr Rick Livesey, who led the current study, said: 'One of the biggest challenges facing dementia researchers at the moment is a lack of good ways to track the disease over time. By using stem cells donated from people with Down's syndrome, we have been able to track how the disease develops over a shorter time period than has been possible in the past'.