Protecting future generations: How stem cell therapies could one day treat Alzheimer’s
While today’s children may well live longer than their parents, with chronic age-related disease on the rise, chances are they might not necessarily enjoy a healthy old age.
Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is one such culprit. As the most common form of dementia, it causes brain cells to lose their normal structure and function, leading to severe, irreversible cognitive decline. There are seven million new cases a year, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures.
However, our understanding of AD is progressing rapidly – particularly around stem cell therapies.
So what does this mean if you’re considering banking your child’s stem cells?
Alzheimer’s – stem cells a candidate for a solution
While researchers have yet to figure out exactly what triggers AD, they do have a clear picture of what is going on in the brain as the disease takes hold. Two proteins which normally exist in the brain – for reasons as yet unknown – become toxic to the brain, disrupting its healthy balance.
Two proteins which normally exist in the brain – for reasons as yet unknown – become toxic to the brain, disrupting its healthy balance.
As the toxic proteins proliferate, they form abnormal structures which interfere with the normal functioning of brain cells so that they can no longer communicate with one another. As a result, the cells die away and the brain shrinks.
Armed with these insights into AD’s destructive mechanisms, researchers theorised that the key to treating the condition must lie in preventing the build-up of these toxic proteins.
Stem cell therapies, which can replace lost cells, now appear as strong candidates for a solution.
What could stem cells do to combat Alzheimer’s?
Stem cells are unspecialised cells which have the ability to generate new cells of almost any kind. Given the right chemical and genetic signals, these cells will divide over a series of generations to eventually give rise to highly specialised cells, including neurons.
Stem cells are unspecialised cells which have the ability to generate new cells of almost any kind.
Neurology experts believe that AD’s destructive mechanisms could be halted and depleted neurons restored if clinicians could find a way to implant stem cells into the affected parts of the brain and stimulate them to turn into new normally-functioning brain cells.
Recent research has shown that this is indeed possible. In a 2014 study conducted at the University of California, stem cells were transplanted into the brains of mice with AD, which reduced the build-up of beta-amyloid plaques, thus reversing the pathology that underlies the disease.
A great leap forward in Alzheimer’s stem cell treatment
All the painstaking research into regenerative stem cell therapies for AD has now finally culminated in a major breakthrough – in April 2018, Trinity Clinic Fukuoka in Japan carried out the first official stem cell treatment of human patients with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
The team treated three patients by administering each with 200 million stem cells over two hours, every two weeks for a total of 10 treatments. Autologous stem cells (ie, the patient’s own stem cells) were used to minimise the risk of rejection. While several months and years will need to pass before the outcome of the Japanese team’s efforts can be seen, their achievement is remarkable simply by the obstacles they overcame.
Performing stem cell therapy on an organ as delicate as the human brain is no mean feat. Firstly stem cells must be safely implanted into the affected areas of the brain. Secondly, they must then successfully transform into the specific type of brain cells that have been damaged. Finally, these transformed cells must produce the substances that brain cells naturally produce, and they must do so in normal quantities.
This breakthrough represents a pivotal moment in the fight against AD: for the first time ever, strong evidence of the outcomes achievable with stem cell therapy in humans will finally be available.
Discovery of a strong ally in the fight against Alzheimer’s
While it is yet to be proven that stem cell therapies are a cure for AD, promising research is racing ahead. Multiple human stem cell trials are currently ongoing, with many expected to reach completion this year and next.
Multiple human stem cell trials are currently ongoing, with many expected to reach completion this year and next.
Gradually, researchers are honing in on more effective treatments and refining their approaches. For example, studies now indicate that the type and source of stem cells used is of critical importance. Stem cells can be harvested from bone marrow, fat tissue and the placenta. However, mesenchymal stem cells from umbilical cord blood (UC-MSC) are proving to be the best allies in the fight against AD.
A study in the World Journal of Stem Cells argued that umbilical cord blood has a faster capacity for self-renewal than stem cells from other sources and has shown the ability to accumulate in damaged tissue, promote tissue repair, and modulate immune response. The researchers suggest that it will prove to be useful tools for regenerative medicine. Already they are the most commonly used stem cells in human AD treatment research.
Beating Alzheimer’s in the future
The current advances in stem cell treatment of AD suggest that by the time children born today are old enough to be at risk of the disease, effective treatment may well be available. The research also indicates that if patients are treated with their own stem cells, sourced from their umbilical cord blood, they would stand the best possible chance.
For new parents, then, deciding to freeze and preserve their newborn’s umbilical cord blood has the potential to be a great safeguard when it comes to ensuring their children enjoy health into their old age.
Smart Cells is the UK’s first private cord blood storage company, helping parents from across the world take the pioneering decision to store the stem cells of their babies for greater security of health. For more information on umbilical cord blood banking or to organise a consultation, please click here to find the number of the office nearest to you, email us on UAE@smartcells.com, or click here.
About the author: Shamshad Ahmed, CEO and Founder of Smart Cells International.
Shamshad Ahmed is CEO and Founder of Smart Cells International Ltd. Opening in 2000, Smart Cells became the UK’s first private cord blood company – its goal to give parents more access to potentially life-saving treatment for their families. It is one of the UK’s largest private banks, operating across the globe and storing over 50,000 cord blood samples from people in over 70 countries. Shamshad started his career in finance and foreign exchange at Citibank before moving over to the world of clinical trials. He holds a BA from Nottingham Trent University, and he has been a member of the Young President’s Organization since 2008 – having served on the board for a number of those years.