Rudolph E Tanzi is the Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease at Massachusetts General Hospital. He and his staff have been researching the causes of Alzheimer's Disease. This week, they announced that they have developed the ability to grow human neurons with the genes for Alzheimer's in petri dishes.
The neurons organize themselves in the grid-like structure found in the brain. Those neurons with the Alzheimer's genes also form the plaque tangles which are a hallmark indicator of the disease. The ability to grow neurons in a petri dish will hopefully allow researchers to test potential drugs for treating Alzheimer's more quickly.
Dr. Tanzi and his team are not the only ones growing neurons in petri dishes. His team at MassGeneral worked with embryonic stem cells which have the ability to become any cell needed. However, a team of stem cell scientists led by Tracy Young-Pearse have converted skin stem cells from individuals with early on-set Alzheimer's into neurons and grown them in petri dishes as well. Both Tanzi and Young-Pearse teach at Harvard in addition to directing their respective labs.
The goal to create collections of human neurons to directly study or use in drug testing is not a new concept and has been under work for several years. In 2012, the University of California, San Diego team led by Larry Goldstein had announced they had succeeded in converting skin cells to neurons for petri growth. From how heavily Tanzi's team is receiving coverage this week, you'd be hard pressed to know that this announcement is not the first of its kind.
Will Tanzi's approach be substantively different or a game changer in ways that the findings by the labs run by Young-Pearse or Goldstein have not? Only time will tell.