Curing Brain Diseases by Growing New Cells?

"The ability to regenerate the needed cell type and place it in the correct spot would have major impact," says Eric Holland, a neurosurgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who specializes in the treatment of brain tumors.

Detailed Developments

Where all this will lead is still debatable, but the research stands alone in terms of detail.

Using a powerful microscope, the researchers photographed the stem cells in the petri dish every five minutes for up to 30 hours. They ended up with a time-lapse movie that shows exactly what changed every time a new chemical was tried out on the cells.

Thus they were able to change the course of the development by chemical manipulation, and that's perhaps the most important aspect of all. That suggests that chemicals, not surgery, may be able to correct a diseased mind that is now almost impossible to treat.

It's a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, and it all could be a mirage. Success would mean so much to so many people that it is almost impossible to hold one's enthusiasm in check. But many promising results in the past have proved disappointing.

There's still no cure for Alzheimer's disease, for example, despite decades of research. The progression of the disease can be slowed with some drugs, but only a little.

If a cure could be found, the financial problems that threaten to cripple Medicare would vanish, and families would no longer have to endure what has become known as "the long goodbye."

Steindler's group is already testing lab animals with neurological diseases to see if they can be coaxed into generating new brain cells to replace those destroyed by the diseases. That would be a major accomplishment, and if it works, "then we will begin to talk about human trials," he says.

It's worth hoping that Steindler and his colleagues are on the right track.

But only time, and much more research, will prove it.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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