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Science & Technology
Alzheimer's Breakthroughs

It is one of the worst elderly diseases to cope with for both patient and caregivers

From DIANA J. CHOYCE
June 18 - 24, 2001

With one million patients in Japan and another four million in the United States, Alzheimer's research for a cure has reached a manic pace. The disease causes devastating dementia and is always fatal. It is one of the worst elderly diseases to cope with for both patient and caregivers. However, Japanese scientists are offering new hope in the search for a cure. Ikuo Nishimoto, a professor of pharmacology and neurosciences at Keio University in Tokyo, said his team has discovered a protein, which the team has named humanin, that can stop the death of brain cells that occurs in Alzheimer's patients. But he also added that years of testing would be needed to determine whether humanin, produced naturally by genes in the rear part of the brain, can actually be used as a cure. "The difference between what we have discovered and what is currently used for treatment is that this completely stops the death of brain cells,'' Nishimoto told Reuters in an interview. "This is the first step in completely curing Alzheimer's disease.'' Nishimoto said his team, which has only conducted experiments in test tubes so far, will start testing the substance in animals, and added that Keio University was currently applying for a patent for humanin. Alzheimer's disease has been in the spotlight recently, after U.S. federal prosecutors charged a Japanese scientist with stealing genetic material related to the disease and handing it over to a Japanese government-funded research institute. Nishimoto said that further testing will be needed to determine whether humanin can actually cure Alzheimer's. "Whether this can be used as a cure or not will depend on the results of testing,'' he said, adding this process could take as long as 15 years. But Nishimoto said humanin has so far met all the conditions required as the cure for the disease. "Humanin has so far met the various required conditions. For example, when you stop deaths of brain cells, it usually causes cancer. But humanin does not have such side effects,'' he said. Japan has positioned itself as one of the leading nations in Alzheimer's research and many of its pharmaceutical companies have launched major marketing campaigns for medications aimed at slowing the early effects of the disease. While scientists say a cure for Alzheimer's is now within sight, it will be at least five to 10 years before any cure could be commercially available.

In other Alzheimer's news, a psychiatrists' conference in Canberra, Australia has been told of a growing link between smoking and Alzheimer's disease. Psychiatrist Dr Osvaldo Almeida, from the University of Western Australia, says eight studies have been published suggesting the risk of Alzheimer's disease increases by 50 per cent for smokers.He says the more people smoke and the longer they do it for, the greater their risk. Dr Almeida says the reason for the increase remains unclear, but it is believed nicotine acts on the receptors in the brain which control memory. "We would expect that stopping smoking or quitting smoking would be associated with positive cognitive outcomes and a reduction in the risk of Alzheimer's disease," Dr Almeida said.

In the United Kingdom, a vaccine is being developed which it is hoped could prevent the onset of Alzheimer's Disease. Tests are in their early stages, but scientists say that if trials on humans mirror the success of those on mice, the vaccine could "revolutionize" the treatment of the disease. Eighty patients in four UK centers are taking part in the research. Some experts have even suggested the treatment could reverse the progress of Alzheimer's, and that families could in future be screened for the disease, and those at risk immunized. The pioneering treatment is described in 'Target Alzheimer's', a report from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI). Some estimates suggest Alzheimer's costs the UK 5.5bn per year. The ABPI say if the average age of the onset of the disease could be delayed by just five years, the number of people developing the disease and the cost could be halved. In tests, scientists used specially bred mice that carried a human gene, which meant they developed the plaques. Some were given the vaccine and others were not. Those who were given the vaccine retained the mental capacity to carry out tests such as finding their way around a maze, the report author Mike Hall told BBC News Online. Those who were not vaccinated and developed the plaques were unable to successfully complete the memory tests. Dr Hall said: "If you could vaccinate, you could find those people who are likely to get early onset Alzheimer's, and hopefully prevent them getting the disease in the first place."

The research into the treatment's effects on humans began around a year ago, but has only now reached therapeutic dose levels the stage where the drug could have an effect on the disease. Even if tests of the vaccine on humans are successful, it would be years before it was available. Harry Cayton, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society said: "If trials in humans prove to be effective we have the real hope of preventing at least one form of dementia but much research still needs to be done." Harriet Millward, acting chief executive, of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, told BBC News Online: "Initial results from the Elan Corporation's anti-amyloid vaccine have given a huge boost to research into Alzheimer's disease. "Not only do results indicate that the vaccine prevents the symptoms appearing, but that by breaking down the plaques, it may even reverse the effects of the disease. "This is some of the most exciting research currently being undertaken into Alzheimer's disease. "If all stages of the subsequent testing work, general availability of the vaccine could be four or five years away."