By Gina Kolata
NEW YORK TIMES SYNDICATE OCTOBER 12, 2014
For the first time, and to the astonishment of many of their colleagues, researchers created what they call Alzheimer’s in a Dish — a petri dish with human brain cells that develop the telltale structures of Alzheimer’s disease. In doing so, they resolved a longstanding problem of how to study Alzheimer’s and search for drugs to treat it — the best they had until now were mice that developed an imperfect form of the disease.
The key to their success, said the lead researcher, Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, was a suggestion by his colleague Doo Yeon Kim to grow human brain cells in a gel where they formed networks as in an actual brain. They gave the neurons genes for Alzheimer’s disease. Within weeks they saw the hard Brillo-like clumps known as plaques and then the twisted spaghetti-like coils known as tangles — the defining features of Alzheimer’s disease.
The work, which also offers strong support for an old idea about how the disease progresses, was published in Nature on Sunday. Leading researchers said it should have a big effect.
“It is a giant step forward for the field,” said Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, a professor of neuroscience at Duke University. “It could dramatically accelerate testing of new drug candidates.”
Of course, a petri dish is not a brain and the petri dish system lacks certain crucial components, like immune system cells, that appear to contribute to the devastation once Alzheimer’s gets started. But it allows researchers to quickly, cheaply and easily test drugs that might stop the process in the first place. The crucial step, of course, will be to see if drugs that work in this system stop Alzheimer’s in patients.
The discovery, said Dr. Sam Gandy of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, is “a real game changer” and “a paradigm shifter.” He added, “I’m really enthusiastic to take a crack at this in my lab.”
Karen Duff, though, of Columbia University, while praising the work as “a tour de force” cautioned that once Alzheimer’s gets started, tangles can take off on their own and may need to be attacked by drugs that strike them specifically in order to stop devastation in the brain.