- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2001

LONDON — Scientists have succeeded in reversing the effects of Alzheimer's disease in mice, and clinical trials on humans have begun using the experimental method.
In an operation offering the first real glimmer of hope for the 20 percent of people who will develop Alzheimer's, a California neurosurgeon has injected genetically modified skin cells into the brain of a 60-year-old woman in the early stages of the disease.
Both the work on mice and the human experiments are concentrating on the effects of a protein molecule called nerve growth factor (NGF), which is naturally produced in the brains of fetuses and babies, and appears to be important in brain development. Production of the protein switches off soon after birth.
British and American scientists will announce tomorrow that they have proved that NGF causes damaged nerve cells to regenerate when injected into the brains of mice with Alzheimer's.
No information is available about the condition of the woman who received NGF in an operation on April 5, other than that she initially recovered well.
The researchers in La Jolla, Calif., who oversaw the surgery are now looking for six other Alzheimer's patients to volunteer for the treatment.
The woman's husband said the couple were anxious to promote a cure for Alzheimer's, which their four children and one grandchild might inherit.
"If there are benefits for my wife, that will be a plus, " said the husband.
The leader of the study in Britain, Jon Cooper of the department of medicine at King's College, London, said: "Findings suggest that NGF deprivation is responsible for the age-related cell loss associated with Alzheimer's disease, and that treatment could reverse the pathological changes associated with this disorder."
Richard Harvey, the director of research at the Alzheimer's Disease Society, said the work heralded a cure for Alzheimer's within the next 10 to 15 years.
Dr. Harvey said the difficulty was to get NGF into the fluid at the brain's base. Ordinary injections or tablets would not work.
In the human trial in California, a small hole was cut in the front of the patient's skull and five batches of skin cells — genetically modified to produce pure NGF — were implanted at the base of the frontal lobe, in a region linked to learning and memory.
A specific type of nerve cell in this area shrinks and apparently dies in Alzheimer's, and this is thought to contribute to dementia and memory loss.
Dr. Cooper's team have now shown that the neurons can be "brought back to life" by NGF.
Dr. Mark Tuszynski, the neurologist leading the La Jolla team, said he was not ready to claim that NGF gene therapy would completely cure Alzheimer's disease. However, he said, "We hope it might protect and even restore certain brain cells and alleviate some symptoms, such as short-term memory loss, for a period that could last a few years."
It could be some years before the procedure had been tested on enough patients to decide whether it would be useful therapy.
Dr. Harvey said: "The Tuszynski work is quite audacious, which is why they're doing the trial in only one or two patients. They have to proceed quite carefully."
Previous cell-implantation work designed to help Parkinson's disease sufferers had produced unpleasant side-effects.
"Once cells have been implanted, you can't get them out, " he said. "It's not something you can switch off. So we need to know the long-term side-effects of these treatments."

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