It has been a very good week for Canadian stem cell researchers, with two significant discoveries.
(Both discoveries show how Canadian scientists rank among the best in the world in the field of stem cells and regenerative medicine. Our Foundation advocates for the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan to accelerate the translation of research discoveries into new, safe and effective treatments for a number of diseases. During the election campaign, we’re urging all Canadians to help put stem cells on the government’s agenda. It only takes two minutes. Just click here.)
First came news last Thursday that researchers affiliated with the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre have identified fat droplets in the brains of patients who died from Alzheimer’s disease. These deposits appear to block stem cells from repairing brain tissue, possibly triggering dementia.
The fat deposits have been hiding in plain sight for more than 100 years. “We realized that Dr. Alois Alzheimer himself had noted the presence of lipid accumulations in patients’ brains after their death when he first described the disease in 1906,” says Laura Hamilton, a doctoral student who found fat droplets near the stem cells in the brains of mice predisposed to develop the disease. “But this observation was dismissed and largely forgotten.” Her remarks are highlighted in the research centre’s press release about the discovery.
The findings have implications for treating and potentially curing dementia, which currently affects almost 750,000 people in Canada, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada’s Mimi Lowli-Young, who was featured in a CBC News report on the discovery. The Alzheimer Society helped fund the work.
The hope is that drugs to block fatty acid build-up, which are now being tested to fight obesity, could also help treat dementia. “We succeeded in preventing these fatty acids from building up in the brains of mice,” explained the University of Montreal’s Dr. Karl Fernandes. “The impact of this treatment on all the aspects of the disease is not yet known, but it significantly increased stem cell activity,”
Finding a treatment is still years away. But the discovery opens a new pathway to combat Alzheimer’s.
The second Canadian accomplishment comes from the lab Dr. Gordon Keller, Director of the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Toronto.
A team of clinicians-scientists has found a way to generate 3D bile duct structures from human stem cells. The structures will allow scientists to study bile duct disorders, which cause liver disease, and test new treatments.
“Until now, we have not had a good scientific model to study the human liver’s bile duct system,” explains Dr. Anand Ghanekar, a clinician-scientist at Toronto General Research Institute, in a University Health Network news release. “We need to be able to study a patient’s disease in a dish at the basic cellular and molecular level. Stem cell technology gives us a totally different way of evaluating and then treating these defective cells.”
The discovery also has implications for treating Cystic Fibrosis because many patients with that disease also have defective bile duct function and liver disease.