The cognitive condition dementia affects more than 47 million people worldwide. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s, which affects about five million people in the U.S. These conditions significantly impact a person’s ability to function, and they ultimately lead to death. Thankfully, advances in stem cell therapy are creating hope for patients, caregivers, and their families.
What are Alzheimer’s and dementia?
In the most general sense, dementia refers to memory loss. It’s a condition that results from illnesses affecting the brain by diminishing memory, causing cloudy thinking, changing behavior, and reducing a person’s ability to complete daily activities. The condition is progressive, which means it worsens over time.
While people initially experience mild memory loss, they may eventually lose the capacity to hold a conversation or interact with their environment in a normal way. Although Alzheimer’s is a common cause of death—it’s the sixth most common cause in the U.S.—people can live for up to two decades with the illness.
Alzheimer’s and dementia are not a normal part of aging, however advanced age is a risk factor for the condition. Most people with Alzheimer’s are at least 65 years old, and women are the most frequently affected. Up to 80% of dementia cases are Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Although the disease most commonly affects older people, early onset Alzheimer’s affects people in their 40s and 50s. Anyone who develops the condition before the age of 65 is considered to fall into this category. Early onset accounts for about 5% of people with the disease, or about 200,000 people.
What are the risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s?
Family history affects a person’s risk of developing the disease, and there may also be a link with heart health. For this reason, Hispanics and African Americans may have an increased risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s because they have higher rates of heart disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
How can stem cell therapy help people with Alzheimer’s or dementia?
Stem cells are helping to advance the treatment of dementia in two important ways. First, stem cells are being used to model the disease in the laboratory, helping researchers experiment and see which medications would be most helpful for slowing the disease.
Second, the stem cells may one day be used in the brain to produce new nerve cells or at least slow down their death.
The typical method of evaluating drugs for their effectiveness against disease is to test them first in the laboratory with animals, and then in clinical trials with people. This method is slow, expensive, and time-consuming, not to mention risky for the people participating in the clinical trials. Results for animal trials don’t always mirror the results for humans.
With Alzheimer’s in particular, making progress toward an effective drug has been frustratingly slow. With stem cell therapy, however, scientists have new potential to study dementia in the laboratory without using people or animals.
In one study, researchers from the University of California, San Diego used stem cells to create neurons that exhibited Alzheimer’s-like qualities, reports the Wall Street Journal. They used those neurons to examine the effects of two trial drugs, one of which had been pulled from its trial because it seemed to exacerbate symptoms.
After testing the how the medication affected stem cells, researchers quickly learned why it didn’t work: the dosage used was probably not effective for patients with a specific gene mutation.
This rapid, deep knowledge could help scientists dramatically speed up the timeline for studies and get more effective drugs to market faster all while saving money. Susan Soloman, with the nonprofit New York Stem Cell Foundation, tells the Wall Street Journal:
“Stem cells give you a window into a living human being’s brain, and that’s really extraordinary.”
Stem cell therapy for Alzheimer’s and dementia
Stem cell therapy could one day help repair damaged brain tissue in Alzheimer’s patients.
In the past, medical experts believed that the adult brain doesn’t create new neurons, that once brain cells die, a person has fewer. However, research from the early 1990s found the brain continues to have stem cells that divide and reproduce throughout a person’s life, reports Space Coast Daily.
This caught the attention of Alzheimer’s researchers, who are now working to separate these stem cells from normal neurons and activate their potential to grow new cells, potentially staving off the progression of dementia. Scientists hope to develop new medications that would trigger these stem cells to start dividing.
Despite the hope that these treatments could work, progress has been slow. One problem is the sheer number of neurons that die off in patients with Alzheimer’s according to ALZForum. Researchers also worry that the toxic environment of a dementia-ridden brain would kill off any stem cells, removing any potential benefit.
Instead of looking to stem cell therapy as a way of replacing dead brain cells, researchers may be better off using the cells to promote the health of those neurons that are in the process of dying, regenerative medicine Dr. Mahendra Roa tells ALZForum. Roa says stem cells added to brains with Alzheimer characteristics do not necessarily succumb to death themselves.
Stem cells may not immediately cure dementia or Alzheimer’s, but they could help people live longer, better lives, researchers say.
Currently, there are a variety of trials underway to examine the potential of stem cell therapy to advance scientists’ understanding of the disease and potentially identify new treatments. Many of these studies are taking place in California, where the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has awarded more than $54 million worth of studies.
Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, for instance, are using stem cells to develop drugs that both protect the brain and help to stimulate new brain cells. They’ve already uncovered a potentially helpful drug with both of those characteristics that’s worked in animal studies.
The Salk researchers are currently conducting additional research to hopefully prepare for a human trial overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, which could lead to a new stem cell therapy on the market.
What do you think about the potential for stem cell therapy to help with Alzheimer’s or dementia?