Stem cell therapy can mean a lot of things. Stem cells have been used in a variety of scenarios for many diseases. For Alzheimer’s disease, stem cells could in theory be used to replace any abnormal cell populations in the patient’s brain. But can we do such a thing in practice?
Some background on Alzheimer’s disease.
The most significant characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease or AD for short, is the accumulation of Amyloid beta proteins in the brain. Those tend to cluster together and eventually cause neurons to break down, losing their function over time. This process is triggered by various factors. This can be genes, environmental factors or even random mutations.
As a results the cognitive abilities of the patient get reduced at an accelerated rate, leading to poor health, quality of life and longevity. This affects a lot of people, since the disease can be triggered by ageing and the factors causing it are so general that nothing guarantees one is safe. Therefore a treatment should be invented in order to improve the health of people over 45 who are at higher risk of AD.
The actual problem.
The accumulation of Amyloid beta particles is the problem, but not because they are overexpressed in AD brains, but because they cannot be cleared from them. Recent studies have confirmed that symptoms rely more on the circulation and vascular health of the brain rather than cellular production of Amyloid beta proteins. Apparently in a healthy brain Amyloid beta is still present but manages to be in low concentrations due to effective circulation. You can read our article here.
Stem cells offer a solution for every disease by promising to replace our “aged” stem cells with new ones. Those new ones can be perfected in the lab and can originate from donors of cord blood or even be induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs), stem cells made in the lab from any cell from the patient’s body. Those cells are able to turn into any other cell type.
The plan would be to introduce stem cells into the patient’s brain, either by injecting them in the circulation, or by injecting them directly into the brain. Those cells could then theoretically stick to the brain tissue and differentiate, making new neurons that are perfectly healthy.
In practice though…
Recent clinical trials and studies show that stem cells don’t really like to stick to tissues when introduced into a patient’s body. They prefer to flow around. This varies though. Some researchers have been able to make stem cells adhere to tissues, by using more optimized protocols. You can read a recent article on this here. There are things like miRNAs and other factors that need to be fine tuned before a stem cell is ready to be incorporated into a patient’s body.
It is not all bad though. Stem cells, when introduced, regardless of whether they stick to tissues and differentiate, produce some really helpful molecules. Cytokines that reduce inflammation and signal growth and regeneration. This has proven to be great for AD patients, as it helps with symptoms, but there are ways we can still improve the effectiveness of stem cell therapies regarding such applications.
How stem cells are injected into patients is aparently very improtant as well. When stem cells are injected into the brain directly rather than the blood stream, components do not need to pass the blood brain barier and become more available to the area. This leads to better results. The problem here is that this method is more invasive and the stem cells still do not adhere to the tissue. Hopefully this will be solved in the near future. Many of those studies are ongoing and will be continuing until the end of 2019.
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