Studying Alzheimer's Disease in a Petri Dish

brainpuzzleThe eponymous ship in Star Trek: Voyager featured a 24th century technological innovation: bio-neural gel packs. “The gel packs formed the basis of the bio-neural circuitry, which was essentially an organic computer system. The packs contained neural fibers surrounded in a blue gel with metallic interfaces on the top and bottom. They helped store more information and operated at faster speeds than isolinear circuitry.”

This was the first thing I thought of when I read about the breakthrough in Alzheimer’s research, wherein researchers grow brain cells in a special gel and then introduce the gene for Alzheimer’s:

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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