Bioethics Blogs

Alzheimer’s-in-a-Dish: New Tool for Drug Discovery

Alzheimer's Disease in a dish

Caption: A plaque (orange) disrupts the normal network of human neurons (green) grown in a three-dimensional gel in the lab, mimicking the brain anatomy of Alzheimer’s patients.
Credit: Doo Yeon Kim and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Massachusetts General Hospital/ Harvard Medical School

Researchers want desperately to develop treatments to help the more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and the millions more at risk. But that’s proven to be extremely challenging for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it’s been extraordinarily difficult to mimic the brain’s complexity in standard laboratory models. So, that’s why I was particularly excited by the recent news that an NIH-supported team, led by Rudolph Tanzi at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, has developed a new model called “Alzheimer’s in a dish.”

So, how did Tanzi’s group succeed where others have run up against a brick wall? The answer appears to lie in their decision to add a third dimension to their disease model.  Previous attempts at growing human brain cells in the lab and inducing them to form the plaques and tangles characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease were performed in a two-dimensional Petri dish system. And, in this flat, 2-D environment, plaques and tangles simply didn’t appear.

After a series of futile attempts using a 2-D system, Doo Yeon Kim, a researcher in Tanzi’s lab, suggested the team try to grow human neural stem cells in a 3-D gel matrix. And, voila, that did the trick! The gel system allowed the cells to grow more naturally and form into 3-D networks just like they do in the brain—which, as we all know, just happens to be 3-D.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.