Alzheimer’s Disease is a devastating neurodegenerative disease characterized by dementia and memory loss. It afflicts more than 5 million people in America alone, exacting a terrible toll not only on patients and their families, but on the health-care system as a whole.
The University of Michigan Program for Neurology Research & Discovery, under the direction of Eva Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., has proposed a stem cell approach to Alzheimer’s Disease, which may for the first time bring relief to those suffering from the terrible affliction. It is based on a stem cell therapy that Dr. Feldman pioneered for the treatment of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and that is undergoing human clinical trials at Emory University in Atlanta.
“There are similarities between ALS and Alzheimer’s Disease that make us believe that our stem cell therapy should prove effective for both,” says Dr. Feldman. “Both diseases affect the same kind of neuron, though in different parts of the body.
“If the treatment works for ALS, we think it will also nurture and protect neurons under attack in Alzheimer’s Disease.”
The cells under siege in both diseases are cholinergic neurons. In the case of ALS, they are located in the spinal cord of patients, impairing the connections they make with muscles throughout the body.
Dr. Feldman has shown that injecting a type of stem cell called a neuronal precursor cell into animal models of ALS has decreased the progression of the disease. Neuronal precursor cells can be grown in tissue culture. They continue to divide and, under the appropriate conditions, mature into specific types of neurons.
Dr. Feldman has demonstrated that these cells, when injected into animals with ALS, are able to protect cholinergic motor neurons that otherwise would have been lost to the disease. That is the approach being tested in the human clinical trials at Emory.
In Alzheimer’s Disease, the cholinergic neurons are situated in a portion of the brain known as the basal forebrain. These neurons create a network that connects areas of the frontal lobe, which regulate personality and behavior, with areas of the temporal lobe, which regulate learning and memory. Loss of these neurons is thought to be a major cause of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Dr. Feldman’s work on Alzheimer’s Disease will begin with an animal model of disease, and if successful, progress to human clinical trials. Neuronal precursor cells will be directly injected into the cholinergic centers of the brain in animals with the disease.
Her team of researchers will then assess the animals’ behavior and the rate of disease progression and correlate these measures with the survival and connectivity of the injected stem cells.
Dr. Feldman believes that the neuronal precursor cells will protect the cholinergic neurons, allowing them to maintain important connections within the brain and slowing the disease progression.
The neuronal precursor cells that will be used in these studies have already been approved by the FDA for human use. Therefore, positive results in the human clinical trials for ALS will have a direct bearing on their use to treat Alzheimer’s Disease.