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Why are scientists using stem cells in their research into dementia?

The brain is probably the most complex, and one of the most difficult to study organs in the human body. Brain scans can tell us a lot, and looking at donated brains from patients who suffered from brain diseases is informative. The same is true of computer and animal models too.

However, stem cells - from healthy people and those in the early and late stages of disease - are one of the most important tools in helping us to study and understand degenerative brain diseases. iPSCs are a type of stem cell developed from human skin cells or blood samples. The development of various different types of brain cell from iPSCs gives us an amazing opportunity to look - in great detail - at the workings of these cells and what happens when they are diseased. We call this 'disease in a dish' models.

What can disease in a dish models tell us and how are they used?

Scientists using the DPUK equipment can track the development of disease in the different brain cells they’ve developed and distinguish differences between normal and diseased cells at the molecular and protein level. Patient brain cells produced from iPSCs provide an opportunity to spot the differences in the cells in terms of their shape and functional behaviour. We can look at different cells together and study their interplay - relationships between cells may play a vital role in the development of neurodegenerative disease.


How are scientists using the DPUK technologies?

At the moment, my colleagues are are applying drugs and compounds to these cells to see if they have a positive, therapeutic effect in stopping, slowing or even reversing the development of disease.

We carefully monitor the effects of these compounds on the molecular pathways which are shown to be dysfunctional in iPSC-derived cells from diseased patients.

The technology we now have vastly improves the efficiency, accuracy and precision of the biochemical testing and screening of iPSC-derived brain cells we carry out here. It means industry is willing to engage with the expertise we offer, and we can pool resources.
- Dr Deepak Kumar, Stem Cell Research Manager, University of Oxford

How do you see the future of using stem cells in disease research?

Reprogrammed iPSCs from neurodegenerative diseases and healthy patients have become a powerful tool permitting the development of complex 'disease in a dish' models. Coupling stem cell technology with drug screening is a truly exciting opportunity to identify potential target hits via thorough, accurate and efficient screeening using state-of-the art equipment. It might help slow down the progression or even reverse the neurodegenerative diseases.