DIMENSIONS Winter 2002


by Katie Carter

Q. Why is there so much debate over embryonic stem cell research, and how does this affect Alzheimer's disease research?

A. There are many types of stem cells in the human body. Adult stem cells have been found in most tissues of the adult body and can develop into many types of cells. Human embryonic stem cells come from human embryos. These cells can be grown indefinitely and are particularly important because they have the potential to form into every cell type of the body. Ethical controversy about human embryonic stem cell research relates to their origins (human embryos) and their developmental potential. Many researchers are interested in the idea of transplanting neural stem cells as a method for replacing damaged or lost brain cells in neurological disorders, such as Alz-heimer's disease (AD).

To find out more about recent advances in this type of research, we consulted Dr. Galynn Zitnik, a researcher in the Department of Pathology at the University of Washington. Dr. Zitnik said that many exciting papers have been published in which the generation of various types of neural tissue from embryonic stem cells has been reported. With regards to stem cells and AD, Dr. Zitnik reported, "Research [on AD] is progressing on several fronts. Embryonic stem cell research is only one aspect. At this time I cannot say that stem cell research is important, only that it has great potential that should be investigated. Only time and experimentation will tell if it is important."

Dr. Zitnik notes that one complication of research with stem cells in AD is that we don't know the precise cause of AD. Many researchers think that an accumulation of neurotoxins leads to extensive cell death in the brain of people with AD. If this accumulation is not prevented or reversed, any newly introduced stem cells will also be killed. If AD researchers discover techniques that inhibit these neurotoxins, then the subsequent introduction of new cells derived from stem cells may be useful.Currently at the University of Washington a number of ADRC researchers are conducting experiments to study the possible use of stem cells from adult neural and skin tissue in treating AD and other neurological disorders.

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