In 1983, President Ronald Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. At that time, fewer than 2 million Americans were diagnosed with the condition. Today, 26 million people worldwide suffer from the disease, but it is predicted that Alzheimer’s will possibly affect over 100 million people by 2050. While there are currently no effective therapies, hope is on the horizon.
Effects of Alzheimer's
Alzheimer’s disease, the leading cause of dementia, is a chronic neurodegenerative disorder. Patients suffering from the disease exhibit a combination of signs ranging from memory loss, difficulty completing familiar tasks and confusion with time or place as well as changes in mood and personality. The progression of the disease eventually leads to an inability to independently and safely perform acts of daily living.
Medically, Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by a buildup of what is known as β-amyloid plaques. The toxic function of this peptide in the brain is reported in many studies. Generally, Aβ accumulation in the brain causes localized inflammation.
Studies in Mice
Because stem cells like those in cord blood and cord tissue (See the difference.) have been shown to promote an anti-inflammation benefit, researchers believe it is, therefore, possible that these cells may also prove to be effective in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Stem cells are very potent anti-inflammatories,” said Dr. Bernard S. Baumel, assistant professor of neurology. “We believe infusions of these types of stem cells have the potential to be beneficial to individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.”
In 2015, one study investigated the use of human umbilical cord blood in 23 mice afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Mice infused with cord blood showed improved learning, memory and motor function and markedly reduced Aβ deposits compared to the control group who were not infused with cord blood. It followed a similar study in 2001 that found human umbilical cord blood extended the life of mice with Alzheimer’s.
Another study looked how stem cells like those in umbilical cord tissue could treat the condition and found reduced Aβ deposits in mice with Alzheimer’s, resulting in less cell stress and death.
Studies in Humans
Alzheimer's affects nearly 1 in 3 people over the age of 85
Unfortunately, there is a big gulf between outcomes in mice and those in humans. In 2017, a phase I clinical trial using stem cells derived from cord blood was conducted with nine patients and found at the end of a two-year period that cognitive decline had not slowed.
But researchers have not lost hope.
In 2018, researchers were able to spur the creation of cholinergic-like neurons from cord tissue stem cells when cultured with a Cholinergic-N-Run medium for up to 7 days. The dysfunction and loss of cholinergic neurons is believed to lead to the progressive decline in learning and memory performance in people with Alzheimer’s. The study gives researchers hope for the future direct replacement of these lost cells.
Current Clinical Trials
A new clinical trial at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine is currently recruiting and is focussing on using stem cells like those in cord tissue to treat Alzheimer’s disease. It is open to individuals with mild Alzheimer’s disease symptoms who are otherwise healthy. The study will also look at changes to participants’ cognitive functions, quality of life and brain volume to gain a preliminary understanding of the potential effectiveness of this strategy.
Another study is recruiting out of California and Hawai’i using stem cells like those in cord tissue for the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
A study out of the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, Republic of Korea, is currently looking for 45 patients to undergo an infusion of cord blood stem cells for the treatment of their Alzheimer’s.
Two studies (here and here) are no longer recruiting but currently evaluating the safety and efficacy of stem cells like those in cord tissue in the treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s.