Scientists have created a new model of Alzheimer’s that takes skin cells from people afflicted with the disease and reprograms them by adding genetic factors, according to research released at the Alzheimer’s Association (ALZ) 2012 International Conference.

Skin cells extracted from Alzheimer’s patients were reprogrammed into brain cells using genetics research focused specifically on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). iPSCs are genetically reprogrammed adult cells that resemble an embryonic stem cell. Consequential iPSCs in the study conducted by The New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) were the result of combined skin cell samples from unaffected family members of Alzheimer’s patients and the patients themselves. Once the skin cells of the affected and unaffected participants were combined, scientists added genetic factors to reprogram the cells, resulting in iPSCs that accurately resembled Alzheimer’s patients’ brain cells in a petri dish.

Prior to these findings, scientists habitually studied mouse subjects of the disease in hopes of breaking new ground.

“Current animal models of Alzheimer’s are highly engineered to express elements of the disease,” said William Thies, PhD, ALZ chief medical and scientific officer, “and, while valuable for research, [the mouse subjects] incompletely represent how the disease forms and progresses in people.”

“One advantage of this technology is that we get a near infinite supply of disease- and control-patient stem cells,” said Andrew Sproul, PhD, researcher for NYSCF. “Another is that we can then turn the iPSCs into any tissue in the body. This allows us to investigate the role of various cells in Alzheimer’s disease progression by manipulating the iPSCs to form different types of brain cells that we and others believe are involved in Alzheimer’s.”

iPSCs have already mobilized scientists, offering them the ability to access formerly unattainable aspects of the disease. NYSCF scientists and Mount Sinai School of Medicine researchers found that neurons in Alzheimer’s patients produce a higher level of the toxic form of beta amyloid, a protein fragment that makes up amyloid plaques. These plaques are a standard indicator of Alzheimer’s in the human brain.

The research reported at the ALZ conference focuses on the relatively rare young-onset Alzheimer’s disease (comprising less than 2 percent of all cases).

NYSCF has expressed plans to join forces and resources with other educational institutions to expand their research to cover the more prevalent late-onset Alzheimer’s.