Aug 31 2007
Biomedical researchers at the Harvard Medical School have made an interesting discovery while working with rats that had, for all intents and purposes, developed Alzheimer's disease - genetically modified rat cells that produce a protein that breaks up amyloid-beta plaques in the brain can reverse the progression of the disease. At least in part (thus disclaimed because this isn't really my field of expertise), Alzheimer's disease is caused by masses of a protein called amyloid-beta that interfere with the normal operation of neurons in the brain, causing the functionality of neural networks to degrade. There is, however, a protein called neprilysin that breaks up the plaques so that they can be removed by the body. In Alzheimer's patients neprilysin is not manufactured in sufficient quantities by the body, which allows the plaques to build up inside the structure of the brain. Doctors Dennis Selkoe, Vincent and Stella Coates of Harvard Medical decided to take a lateral attack to the problem in the lab: Rather than infuse the test rats with modified viruses to insert the gene that codes for the production of neprilysin, they extracted cells from the rats and modified them in vitro to produce the protein. The cells were then re-infused into the test rats which were allowed to live for some period of time and then killed for examination.
The plaques in the rats' brains were gone.
The question is now, "Will this process work in humans?"
Nobody knows yet. Medical ethics concerns aside, a human brain is much larger and more complex than a rat brain, so at the very least it'll take more time for modified cells to propagate through the brain to do their job. Besides, the research that lead up to this procedure is still in a relatively early state of advancement, so there's no way of knowing what they'll discover next, or whether or not it'll be supplanted by something else. Or, come to think of it, whether or not the procedure will be safe for use in humans - there's always that possibility. As much as I'd like to wave the flag of victory (believe me, I'm all for quality of later life), it's too soon to say that we've got this disease licked.
Still, I hold out hope.