A vaccine against Alzheimer’s disease could be on the horizon after scientists carried out successful trials in animals.
Researchers from the US and Germany were able to reverse memory loss in mice and are keen to move quickly to human trials.
The vaccine trains the immune system to fight a type of sticky amyloid beta protein in the brain that accumulates in people with dementia, preventing communication between neurons.
Previous drugs to fight Alzheimer’s have also concentrated on reducing amyloid, but have shown little success in reducing symptoms, with some even triggering negative side effects.
Now scientists have discovered that, in people with dementia, the protein folds itself into a hairpin-like structure, and becomes a much more dangerous form of amyloid.
Professor Mark Carr, from the Institute of Structural and Chemical Biology at the University of Leicester, explained: “This structure had never been seen before in amyloid beta.”
The team theorised that engineering amyloid into the same hairpin shape before administering it as vaccine would spur the body into producing antibodies to fight off that specific structure.
It would also allow the immune system to ignore normal forms of the protein, which are needed by the body.
When injected into mice, the vaccine triggered antibodies and helped to restore neuron function, increase glucose metabolism in the brain, reverse memory loss and reduce amyloid beta plaque formation.
New treatment could be ‘transformative’
Professor Carr added: “While the science is currently still at an early stage, if these results were to be replicated in human clinical trials, then it could be transformative.
“It opens up the possibility to not only treat Alzheimer’s once symptoms are detected, but also to potentially vaccinate against the disease before symptoms appear.”
More than 520,000 people in Britain have Alzheimer’s disease and the figure is set to rise.
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The researchers are looking to find a commercial partner to take the therapeutic antibody and the vaccine through clinical trials.
Commenting on the research, which was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, Dr Susan Kohlhaas, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Currently there is no disease-modifying treatment available for people with Alzheimer’s in the UK, making drug development even more urgent.
“In this thorough and well-conducted research carried out in mice with features of Alzheimer’s disease, scientists found a vaccine administered through injection found the intended target and helped improve metabolism in brain regions associated with memory and thinking.
“Early results in a behavioural task suggest the mice had improved memory and thinking, hinting that this could be a promising new approach, and one that has so far not been tested in Alzheimer’s drugs in clinical trials.
“Like any new drug, this treatment will need to go through a series of clinical trials in people and while this discovery offers hope, this approach is a long way off being proved successful in humans.”
Long way to go, caution experts
Prof Tara Spires-Jones, of the UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Edinburgh, added: “The vaccine causes the immune systems of the mice to react to one of the pathological proteins that clumps in Alzheimer’s disease.
“While this study is interesting for the research community, it is important to keep in mind that the findings are from relatively small numbers of mice and we have a long way to go to know whether this approach will be useful for people.”
On Sunday, the Government also announced a £375 million investment to improve understanding of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia as well as motor neuron disease (MND), Pick’s disease, fronto-temporal dementia, wernicke-korsakoff and Parkinson’s.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, said: “Neurodegenerative conditions like MND can have a devastating impact on people’s lives and I’m committed to ensuring the Government does everything we can to fight these diseases and support those affected.”