Researchers hail ‘turning point’ in Alzheimer’s treatment

New approach focused on root cause of brain diseases has positive effect on mice

It could be a decade before the research leads to a pill that could be taken by people with Alzheimer’s disease.

A new British study has raised the prospect of a pill that can treat brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s by halting the death of neurons.

The research, performed on sick mice, is at a very early stage and it could be a decade or more before any medicine suitable for patients is developed.

But experts say the findings are highly significant, and one predicted that they would be judged by future generations as an historic turning point.

The Medical Research Council (MRC) team focused on the root cause of many degenerative brain diseases, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's — abnormally shaped proteins that stick together in clumps and fibres.


When enough misshapen protein builds up in the brain it can trigger a reaction that results in the death of nerve cells.

Other approaches have sought to stop or limit the accumulation of the abnormal protein, whose structure is folded the wrong way. Instead, the MRC researchers targeted the harmful way brain cells react to misfolded proteins.

Using a drug injected into the stomachs of mice through a mouth tube, they flipped a cellular switch from “off” to “on” to prevent neurons dying.

Five weeks after treatment one group of mice remained free of symptoms such as memory loss, impaired reflexes and limb dragging. They also lived longer than untreated animals with the same brain disease.

The scientists stress human trials are a long way off and point out that the mice suffered serious side effects, including significant weight loss and raised blood sugar.

But they also believe the research demonstrates in principle the possibility of developing an oral treatment — a pill or swallowed liquid — that can protect the brain from neurodegenerative disease.

The research, reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine, duplicated previous results achieved by the same team by means of genetic engineering.

As in the earlier study, a neurodegenerative disease caused by abnormal prion proteins was induced in the mice. Prion diseases, which include Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), are rare in humans but share the same underlying cause — misfolded proteins — as more common conditions such as Alzeimer’s.

Lead scientist Professor Giovanna Mallucci, from the MRC Toxicology Unit at the University of Leicester, said: "Our previous study predicted that this pathway could be a target for treatment to protect brain cells in neurodegenerative disease. So we administered a compound that blocks it to mice with prion disease. We were extremely excited when we saw the treatment stop the disease in its tracks and protect brain cells, restoring some normal behaviours and preventing memory loss in the mice.

“We’re still a long way from a usable drug for humans — this compound had serious side effects. But the fact that we have established that this pathway can be manipulated to protect against brain cell loss, first with genetic tools and now with a compound, means that developing drug treatments targeting this pathway for prion and other neurodegenerative diseases is now a real possibility.”

The experimental drug, known as GSK2606414, is made by pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline.

It targets an enzyme called PERK which plays a key role in the response of neurons to the build-up of misfolded proteins in the brain.

As part of a natural defence mechanism, the neurons react by switching off their production of new proteins. Ultimately, this leads to their death.

By blocking PERK, the new drug stops this happening, thereby allowing the cells to survive.

A key property of the compound is its ability to penetrate the “blood brain barrier” — a natural shield that prevents toxic substances entering the brain, but also acts as a major obstacle to drug treatments.

Commenting on the research, Professor Roger Morris, from the Department of Chemistry at King's College London, said: "This is the first convincing report that a small drug, of the type most conveniently turned into medicines, stops the progressive death of neurons in the brain as found, for instance, in Alzheimer's disease.

"True, this study has been done in mice, not man; and it is prion disease, not Alzheimer's, that has been cured. However, there is considerable evidence that the way neurons die in both diseases is similar; and lessons learned in mice from prion disease have proved accurate guides to attenuate the progress of Alzheimer's disease in patients." - PA