Nencki Institute opens new lab focused on Alzheimer’s disease study

The Neurobiology Center at the Nencki Institute has opened a new lab—the Laboratory of Preclinical Studies of Higher Standard—which will be used to conduct basic research to explain molecular mechanisms responsible for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.

The Neurobiology Center at the Nencki Institute (Warsaw, Poland) has opened a new lab—the Laboratory of Preclinical Studies of Higher Standard—which will be used to conduct basic research to explain molecular mechanisms responsible for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. Also, researchers in the lab will strive to establish methods for detecting biochemical signals that mark the earliest stages of developing diseases. Understanding the key factors responsible for neurodegeneration will facilitate not only early detection of diseases, but also preparation of effective treatments.

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The newly opened facility is the last of five new core facilities of the Neurobiology Center at the Nencki Institute, an investment of $171.3 million (52 million PLN) executed under a key European project of establishing a Centre for Preclinical Research and Technology (CePT).

The core facility nature of the Neurobiology Center’s Laboratory of Preclinical Studies implies that the laboratory will conduct preclinical tests for outside research institutions and firms. It has been equipped with next-generation cell analyzers to facilitate scientific research on the activity and safety of different compounds in cell lines, including mice, rat, and human neuronal cultures; in human blood cells; and in animal and human cancer cell lines. In addition, the lab is adapted for conducting preclinical tests on mice models of neurodegenerative and immunodefective diseases.

“A longer lifespan leads to neurodegenerative diseases becoming a growing problem. Not only for those affected by these diseases, but for society as a whole. At present, Alzheimer’s disease is number three on the list of the most expensive diseases to treat, with global costs amounting to $600 billion annually. And we still do not have either good methods for early diagnosis or fully effective therapies,” says Prof. Urszula Wojda from the Nencki Institute.

In Alzheimer’s disease, connections between synapses in the brain are damaged, which is accompanied by the gradual, long-term dying out of neurons. Progressive degeneration of neurons in the brain, especially in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex, results in memory and personality disorders and finally the decline of cognitive functions. It is likely that this disease starts even 20 years before the onset of first symptoms and when the patient begins to notice them, often many neurons have already been lost.

Microscopic images of the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease show characteristic extracellular deposits of a protein known as beta amyloid. Furthermore, intracellular aggregates of tau protein have been observed in degenerated neurons. To date, these changes—especially the formation and deposition of beta amyloid—have been treated as the possible main cause of the disease. Everywhere in the world, researchers have been searching for a compound effectively fighting the amyloid. However, the newest drugs, developed in accordance with this conception, show low effectiveness and serious side effects. It therefore seems more and more likely that these deposits and protein aggregates are the effect and not the cause of the disease.

“In car accidents, the airbags often deploy. If we only studied car wrecks, we would notice deployed airbags in each car. We could easily reach a well-documented conclusion that airbags cause car accidents. But we know that the airbags appear as a result! We could face a similar situation in case of protein deposits—they could constitute an effect of another still-unknown process. If so, it is worthwhile to start searching for other mechanisms capable of triggering Alzheimer’s disease,” Prof. Wojda explains.

In their search for the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, researchers from the new lab of the Neurobiology Center currently focus on studying lymphocytes (cells of the immune system) collected from patients. One of their main objectives is to determine whether Alzheimer’s disease is a systemic illness of distorted mechanisms of cell division. In this regard, changes within the brain would only constitute the most visible effect of a disease of the entire organism. Should this hypothesis be positively verified, lymphocytes could be used in early diagnosis and drug screening.

The CePT project under which the Neurobiology Center has been established is the largest biomedical and biotechnological undertaking in Central and Eastern Europe. Under a project of the Warsaw Ochota district, a network of interconnected core facilities is being established, integrating scientific and implementation activities of many research institutions. These labs, worth over $1.2 billion (388 million PLN), are equipped to carry out basic and preclinical research at the highest European level in the area of protein structural and functional analysis, physical chemistry and nanotechnology of biomaterials, molecular biotechnology, aiding medical technologies, pathophysiology and physiology, oncology, genomics, neurobiology, and aging-related diseases.


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