It only takes a little at first—a few short-term memories. But over time, Alzheimer’s disease takes them all, robbing a person of their identity. This is the reality for more than 5.8 million people living in the United States today. To help preserve their memories and identities, researchers across UTHealth are working together to transform how we understand and treat Alzheimer’s disease.
Using mini brain models to understand a big disease
Growing human brain cells in a laboratory may sound like something from a science fiction movie. But that is exactly what Claudio Soto, PhD, is doing to understand how and why Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions develop and how to treat them.
Cerebral organoids are tiny 3D aggregates of brain cells made in the lab from adult cells that have been reprogrammed to become induced pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells can develop into any type of cell and when exposed to specific conditions, generate neurons organized like a microscopic piece of human brain tissue.
“These organoids are ideal models to study brain diseases because you can easily see which proteins or cells are important, what’s going wrong, and what treatments you can apply to prevent that from happening,” Soto explains.
Using cells from patients with familial Alzheimer’s disease, an inherited form of the disease, Soto and his team at UTHealth Neurosciences created cerebral organoids that quickly developed the same abnormalities as those seen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. This has allowed Soto and his team to directly see how the disease progresses in a way that is impossible in a living person.
“The challenge in treating Alzheimer’s disease is that by the time people have clinical symptoms, parts of the brain are already damaged,” Soto says. “These cerebral organoids allow us to better understand the disease process and possibly find regenerative treatments for patients affected by it.”
Looking to the future, Soto and his team are expanding their use of the technology to investigate other neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease. “Philanthropy is absolutely essential for this kind of research that seems a little futuristic,” Soto says. “Traditional sources of funding are more conservative and don’t always allow us to make the big innovative leaps.”
A common link
While Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease differ dramatically, they share a common element: inflammation. In both conditions, specific types of abnormal proteins accumulate in the brain, leading to an inflammatory state that destroys neurons.
“Mesenchymal stem cells have shown promising preliminary results in reducing inflammation in people with Parkinson’s disease, in preclinical trials,” says Paul E. Schulz, MD, a neurologist at UTHealth Neurosciences. “However, there hasn’t been much research to investigate whether these stem cells might also help people with Alzheimer’s disease.”
To fill this knowledge gap, Schulz and Soto have been conducting laboratory tests to determine if mesenchymal stem cells can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Now, they are initiating a clinical study to determine the safety and efficacy of the infusions in people.
“There’s no shortage of good ideas to try to stop Alzheimer’s disease,” Schulz says. “The challenge lies in translating ideas into real solutions for patients and their families.”