Research identifies new compound that could stop neurodegeneration

10 October 2013 - Research published yesterday recorded the discovery of the first chemical to prevent the death of brain tissue in a neurodegenerative disease. This could be an important development in the fight against Alzheimer's disease, but there is still much research to be done to reach an effective, human application of the findings.

Scientists at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Toxicology Unit at the University of Leicester focused their study on the natural defence mechanisms of brain cells, which respond to diseases like Alzheimer’s by activating faulty proteins instead of healthy ones. Eventually, the brain shuts down protein production and starves to death.

Their research looked at a compound which prevented the protein production and so ‘halted’ neurodegeneration. Mice who received no treatment developed severe memory loss and issues with movements, dying within 12 weeks, while the ones given the new compound had shown no signs of neurodegeneration.

However, testing on human subjects will come much later and the results are far from guaranteed. It is also important to note that the mice used in the experiment had prion disease, not Alzheimer’s. Prion diseases are a group of conditions that affect both animals and humans, some examples include Fatal Familial Insomnia and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).

Side effects also remain an issue. The compound was observed affecting the pancreas, meaning the mice developed a mild form of diabetes and lost weight. These sorts of health problems would have serious implications for an older person.

That said, it is the first time that a form of neurodegeneration has been halted in mice, which is promising as a proof-of-principal study. What the MRC scientists will hope is that with further research, neurodegenerative diseases may be prevented with one, consolidated drug which targets all faulty or ‘misfolded’ proteins in humans.

Professor Roger Morris from King’s College London reiterated the need for optimistic caution, telling the BBC, "the world won't change tomorrow, but this is a landmark study."

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