By Dave Warner
Can a drug commonly used to treat a form of skin cancer hold out hope for curing Alzheimer’s disease?
Researchers from the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland think that may be possible with what they call “a dramatic breakthrough in their efforts to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.”
Their optimism is born of experiments using the drug Bexarotene on mice.
“The researchers’ findings, published in the journal Science, show that use of a drug in mice appears to quickly reverse the pathological, cognitive and memory deficits caused by the onset of Alzheimer’s,” said a statement from the medical school.
“The results point to the significant potential that the medication, Bexarotene, has to help the roughly 5.4 million Americans suffering from the progressive brain disease,” the statement said.
Still, one of the Case Western Reserve researchers, Paige Cramer, said it may be three to four years before trials can begin on actual Alzheimer patients.
An official of the Alzheimer’s Associated injected a note of caution into the study findings.
“Because mouse models of Alzheimer’s are limited in how closely they represent human Alzheimer’s, this is an exciting but preliminary study that needs further research, said Heather Synder, senior associate director of medical and scientific relations at the association. The association did give the main author of the study, Gary Landreth, an award to continue the research.
Cramer said initially researchers will try out the drug – which is already approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration for use in cancer treatments – on about a dozen younger people who have no traces of the disease. The effort will be to measure changes in their body chemistry as they take the medication.
Essentially, that chemistry involves the body’s ability, or inability, to take a substance called amyloid beta protein away from the brain. Your body uses another substance called Apolipoprotein to do that. Raising the level of Apolipotein speeds up that process, according to the Case Western Reserve statement.
Part of the Case research involved the ability of impaired mice to create nests. The researchers said the mice with Alzheimer’s had forgotten how to make nests, as evidenced by the fact that when they were given tissue paper to make a next, they didn’t.
Those mice were then given Bexarotene, and within 72 hours they rediscovered their nest-making ability.
Researchers said that during those 72 hours more than a half of the harmful amyloid plaques had been cleared.
Cramer said that earlier, the best mouse experiments took months to reduce plaque levels in the brain.
“This is a particularly exciting and rewarding study because of the new science we have discovered and the potential promise of a therapy for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Case researcher Gary Landreth, a professor of neurosciences.
“We need to be clear,” he added, “the drug works quite well in mouse models of the disease. Our next objective is to ascertain if it acts similarly in humans. We are at an early stage in translating this basic science discovery into a treatment.”
Cramer said there are many labs across the world working on treatments for Alzheimer’s.
Indeed, only two days before the Case Western Reserve announcement, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, announced an increase in the amount of federal funding for research into ways to fight Alzheimer’s.
The government said the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s could double from the current 5.1 million by 2050, given the aging of the population.
Cramer said one of the benefits of the Case research is that bexarotene is already an approved medication.
As things now stand, it is used to treat a kind of skin cancer called cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.
As with most medications, there is the potential of side effects with bexarotene, ranging from stomach pain, to nausea, to fever to vision problems.
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