Scientists in the United States have managed to turn human embryonic stem cells into a type of brain cell linked to memory loss in Alzheimer's disease. The research, published in the journal Stem Cells, should help in the development and testing of potential new medicines to treat the neurodegenerative disease which affects around half a million people in the UK.
The researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago managed to coax the stem cells into becoming a type of neuron which dies off early in people with Alzheimer's disease. The cells in question are basal forebrain cholinergic neurons (BFCN), which have a key role in memory function, and their loss is thought to be significant in the early stages of the neurodegenerative condition.
These dishes of cells should provide a near limitless supply of neurons for research. Scientists need to know why these cells - critical for memory function - fail in Alzheimer's disease. It should enable them to test compounds on the laboratory samples in the search for treatments.
One of the authors of the study, John Kessler, chair of neurology at Northwestern University said: "We can literally screen tens of thousands of drugs at a time to find the kind of compound that will keep these cells alive. We can ultimately think about transplanting the cells to help the memory deficit." He said his team had also created the neurons from the skin cells of Alzheimer's patients and from healthy volunteers. He was cautious about when the reswearch might yield treatments but said 10 years appeared "realistic".