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The Dawn Of Stem Cell Treatments For Neurological Disease: A World’s First Alzheimer’s Trial


Neurological disease has stumped scientists and medical professionals for centuries.

Out of any other class of disease, it’s undoubtedly the most destructive on both an individual and societal level, affecting the lives of up to a billion people globally and costing more than £100 billion in the UK alone.

One reason neurological disease is so disruptive is that it doesn’t fight the body on the front line, but rather attacks it directly at the headquarters—the central nervous system. Affecting the brain, spine, and the nerves that connect them, and altering everything from how we walk and talk, to our emotions, thoughts, and senses.

Of such diseases, there is a specific group known as neurodegenerative diseases that are of particular interest to scientists in the field of stem cell research.

Neurodegenerative disease is the umbrella term for diseases which involve the progressive loss of structure and function, and even the death, of nerve cells in the brain; a few examples being Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease, and Alzheimer’s.

Discovering how to prevent and reverse the degenerative process at the heart of the problem may not only hold the key to treating disorders like those listed above, but also the wider spectrum of more than six hundred neurological diseases, from Multiple Sclerosis to migraines.

The Gradual Rise Of Stem Cell Therapy

It’s long been known that the adult brain produces new neurons from its own stem cells in response to damage.

However, due to limited access to viable stem cells for research, along with stringent regulations in trailing new treatments on the human brain, stem cell research has progressed relatively slowly in this area.

Some progress has already been made, with several successful studies of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) in patients with Parkinson’s, as well as in the repair of damaged spinal cords, but this ground breaking study from researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine represents the first human clinical trial done on patients with Alzheimer’s.

To date, research has mainly been carried out on mice with Alzheimer’s-like conditions. And it’s thanks to promising results, such as those from a breakthrough clinical trial in China which showed embryonic stem cells to reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s, progress is steadily advancing into human trials.

The Big Problem With Treating Alzheimer’s

The most common cause of Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is a form of progressive mental deterioration that generally occurs in middle or old age, although it can affect people much younger.

With a limited idea of its cause and ranging factors which influence its development such as age, family history, and lifestyle habits, there is currently no effective all-round treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s.

A commonality of patients with Alzheimer’s is known to be the shrinking, or atrophying, of particular parts of the brain. As the brain atrophies, the affect on structure and function causes a plethora of symptoms including memory loss, confusion, disorientation, and mood and behaviour changes.

Drug and non-drug care can temporarily alleviate or slow down some symptoms, but as of yet no treatment has been shown to halt or reverse the atrophy process in the brain.

The First Human Trial of Stem Cell Therapy In Alzheimer’s

In the year long study commencing at the end of last year (2015), thirty patients with Alzheimer’s disease are being treated with mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs).

This particular type of stem cell has been specially chosen due to its anti-inflammatory properties, ability to develop into any other cell type in the body (in this case neurons or nerve cells), and also its tendency to promote neurogenesis—triggering the brain to produce its own new cells in the hippocampus.

This final quality is crucial as the hippocampus is the area of the brain where it’s believed new memories form and Alzheimer’s disease begins. Such a combination of properties make MSCs the model stem cell for treating Alzheimers and a range of other neurological conditions.

Along with stem cell treatment using MSCs, the thirty patients are being routinely observed and tested on a range of parameters including memory, cognitive function, quality of life, and brain volume.

One of the lead researchers in the trial Dr. Bernard Baumel has stated the aim is to simply prove the treatment is safe in humans. Beyond that, Baumel and his team hope to see MSCs remove the brain inflammation of Alzheimer’s altogether.

The results will be published after the trial finishes later on in the year. If previous trials in mice and similar successful trials in humans are anything to go by, we could be looking at the start of the future of stem cell treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.

To register your interest in new studies, help researchers find the right participants, and have the opportunity to access new treatments, visit the NHS’s Join Dementia Research website.

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