Trials of a new treatment that might one day slow the progress of Alzheimer's disease have begun on a 60-year-old woman after scientists succeeded in reversing the effects of the condition on mice.
A Californian neurosurgeon has injected genetically modified skin cells into the brain of the woman, who is in the early stages of the disease. The thinking is that the injected cells might retard damage being done by the disease.
It is the first real hope for the 20 per cent of elderly people who develop Alzheimer's. The woman was said yesterday to have recovered well so far from the complex operation, which was done on 5 April.
The experiments on humans and work on mice have concentrated on the effects of a protein molecule called nerve growth factor, which is naturally manufactured in the brains of foetuses and babies, and appears to be important in brain development.
British and American scientists are expected to announce today that they have proved the protein causes damaged nerve cells to regenerate when injected into the brains of mice with Alzheimer's.
However, it could take years before the procedure is tested on enough patients to decide whether it would be a useful therapy for humans.
Dr Richard Harvey, research director of the Alzheimer's Disease Society, was cautious in his assessment. "Nerve growth factors have the ability to stimulate nerve cell growth and, in particular, regrowth. But the problem with them is that they are large proteins, which cannot get directly into the brain.
"You could not give them as tablets or injections. The challenge is for us to get them to be realistic and effective treatments that can be delivered into the brain."
In the procedure performed on the 60-year-old woman, a small hole was cut in the front of her skull, and five batches of skin cells, genetically modified to produce pure nerve growth factors, were implanted at the base of the frontal lobe.
Dr Harvey added: "It is a procedure which could have a lot of side-effects. It is difficult to see how it could be a cure. It is not doing anything about the disease process. Alzheimer's would still be killing nerve cells. It could perhaps slow the disease right down through protecting the brain."Reuse content