Researchers believe they have gained key insights on the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
The findings could lead to the development of antibiotic treatments that could prevent the onset of the devastating illness.
Investigators have learned that a key protein, called a tau-protein, transforms from being a critical component of normal brain function to a sinister malformed villain that destroys brain cells.
Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) developed the technology that distinguishes the two tau isoforms — one healthy and one disease-causing. Their research shows that only the disease-causing isoform is found in the neurons of Alzheimer’s patients and is exhibited at a very early stage of disease.
The new research, described in the journal Cell, provides tantalizing clues that the disease-causing tau element may be identified and then treated with antibiotics or vaccines at the very early stage of Alzheimer’s disease, reducing or even preventing, the onset of the devastating illness.
“Since Alzheimer’s disease takes at least a decade to develop, the major challenge to halt memory loss is to identify the initial period when the tau protein is transformed from ‘good guy’ to ‘bad guy,’” said co-senior author Kun Ping Lu, M.D., Ph.D.
“By developing an innovative approach to making antibodies, we have uncovered a new strategy to specifically remove disease-causing tau, while leaving healthy tau intact to carry out its important responsibilities.”
The most common form of dementia in older individuals, Alzheimer’s disease currently affects 5.4 million Americans and 30 million people worldwide.
Baby boomer aging and a longer life expectancy will increase the number of victims with some estimates suggesting 120 million people with Alzheimer’s worldwide by 2050. The expected cost of caring for this cohort is more than $1 trillion in the U.S. alone.
“An immunization strategy that targets only the disease-causing twisted tau might enable diagnosis and treatment of memory loss at an early stage, when therapies are most likely to be effective,” said Lu, comparing the situation to that of hypertension.
“Early diagnosis of hypertension can lead to effective treatment to prevent complications,” he said. “But if high blood pressure goes undiagnosed, it can result in a stroke, at which point treatment is limited and extremely expensive.
“Similarly, early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s patients before the onset of severe memory loss could offer doctors a much better chance of halting or even preventing this costly and devastating disease.”
Source: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center .