New theory developed in the Bay Area to fight Alzheimer's

March 7, 2011 7:00:21 PM PST
A Bay Area research group is testing a new class of drugs against Alzheimer's disease. Their approach stems from a unique theory of what actually causes the disease.

For years, researchers at the Buck Institute have genetically altered mice to give them the symptoms of Alzheimers and then studied them. It's research that's led them see Alzheimer's as a signaling imbalance rather than a disease caused by the buildup of toxic amyloid plaques in the brain. That in turn has led to the development of a new class of drugs they believe could control or even reverse the disease.

"We're still in the early stages with mice. It will be several more months until we know how long the mice will do better and how much better they will do," Dr. Dale Bredesen from the Buck Institute said.

Bredesen says the new drug therapy traces back to a discovery we first reported on five years ago; that's when his team altered a protein associated with the production of amyloid plaque. But instead of eliminating the plaque, the tweak produced mice that still had amyloid in their brain, but surprisingly, none of the memory loss.

this buck institute video shows when those mice were taught to swim to a target, their memories proved intact, despite the plaques. Buck researchers believe amyloid has a normal function in the brain and they suspected the protein they had altered might have a role in regulating memory formation, which in the case of Alzheimer's, could be malfunctioning.

"Alzheimers disease, in a very analytic fashion, represents an imbalance between the normal processes of memory formation and memory reorganization. Literally between normal memory and normal forgetting," Bredesen said.

They began testing compounds that could suppress or boost specific peptides within the protein and recently identified several candidates.

"We have developed therapeutics that literally take this balance and move it from the forgetting side of the molecules, and move it to the memory maintenance side of the molecules," Bredesen said.

In other words, put the brain's memory system back in balance. He expects to have early data back in the next several months and if the results are promising, Bredesen and his team believe they could be ready for human drug trials in about three years.

"Dales's lab here at the Buck Institute has been doing groundbreaking research," philanthropist Douglas Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg pledged more than $3.5 million to help fund drug development with plans to raise at least $10 million. And for Rosenberg, it's personal. He lost his father to Alzheimer's and is now determined to do something about the disease that effects more than five million people in this country alone.

"You have to try, and you have to try with something new and fresh," he said.

Rosenberg also has plans to expand his support. He's created a company called Sponsored Research Holdings, with the goal of raising and investing $10 million in the Buck Research. Potential revenues would be shared by the institute and Rosenberg's foundation.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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