Researchers' quest to understand Alzheimers disease

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Over 750,000 people in the UK have dementia and it is thought that these numbers will increase to 1 million by 2021. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia and yet it is surrounded by the unknown. The cost of dementia to healthcare services each year is thought to be in excess of £20 billion and still the cause of Alzheimer's is unknown and we are far from finding a cure for this disease.

The effects of this disease are not just limited to the sufferer; the family of the person affected also have to watch the changes this debilitating disease has on their loved ones. I was interested to read that there have been recent developments into the study of Alzheimer's disease. In the past few months research groups have reported developments in creating Alzheimer's cells which can be grown in the laboratory.

The San Diego School of Medicine at the University of California has been using stem cell technology to create Alzheimer's brain cells from both people in the high risk category and those with no family history of the condition. The group took skin cells from the patients which were transformed into neurons which could be studied in the laboratory. A similar method was used by a team at the University of Cambridge, led by Dr Rick Livesey. They used skin cells from patients with Down's syndrome, who are statistically more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. Dr Livesey stated that the "whole process of the disease" could be seen in a laboratory setting.

Professor Goldstein, the lead researcher at the San Diego School of Medicine believes that the current research, although a step in the right direction, just isn't good enough. He stated that "researchers have had to work around, mimicking some aspects of the disease in non-neuronal cells or using limited animal models."

Most Alzheimer's research is currently conducted on mice but interestingly the drugs which appear to have some success on mice then fail to become successful in human forms of the medication. However, only humans are affected with Alzheimer's disease so this is not surprising. Dr Livesey has stated that what these experiments have allowed him to do "is study the disease progression in real time allowing us to test possible drug treatments. It accelerates the whole process."

It has been cautioned that these stem cell models were "not a panacea" as they cannot demonstrate brain function but if they can contribute towards our understanding of the progression of this disease and allow us to test possible drug treatments then I believe they should continue. So many families, including my own, have to watch as their loved ones slowly deteriorate and become almost unrecognisable as the disease progresses. If we can make any progress towards understanding Alzheimer's disease then it should be encouraged.

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