The key to their success, said the lead researcher, Rudolph E. Tanzi of 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, an Alzheimer’s researcher 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.
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