Alzheimer’s ‘vaccine’ to be tested

An Alzheimer’s ‘vaccine’ is about to be tested in a series of human trials in Australia and the US.

Flinders University Professor Nikolai Petrovsky said researchers had completed successful testing on mice, which had been “genetically programmed to get dementia and Alzheimer’s disease”. He explained that the team had been able to prevent memory loss in the mice and that the next step was to take this into human clinical trials – hopefully in the next 18 to 24 months.

“It’s an exciting time to be starting the new decade. Hopefully this is the breakthrough of the next decade if we can get it to work in the human trials,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“It’s an exciting juncture.”

The vaccine was developed by Prof. Petrovsky in research being led and funded by the Institute for Molecular Medicine and University of California, in the US.

“Currently, we believe Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a build-up of abnormal clumps of protein in the brain,” he said.

“It’s like they gum up the system, a bit like when your pipes get blocked and they don’t work so well.

“The same thing happens in the brain with Alzheimer’s. You get these build-ups of clumps of protein between the brain cells and they start to interfere with the communication between the brain cells.

“With the vaccine, what we’re doing is getting the immune system to make antibodies that can recognise those abnormal clumps of protein and will actually pull them out of the system and break them down.

“It will unblock the pipes and let the brain go back to normal.”

However, a new study from the University of California and the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System argues that the build-up of the beta-amyloid protein may not cause Alzheimer’s.

The research involved 747 participants with different levels of cognitive health who agreed to undergo neuropsychological assessments, as well as PET and MRI brain scans. Of that group, 305 were cognitively healthy, 289 had mild cognitive impairment and 153 displayed markers of what the investigators called “objectively defined subtle cognitive difficulties (Obj-SCD).

The investigators defined participants with Obj-SCD as those who showed “difficulties or inefficiencies on some sensitive cognitive tasks” even though their overall neuropsychological profile was considered to be in the normal range.

In a paper in the journal Neurology, senior author Professor Mark Bondi said brain scans of people with Obj-SCD showed that they experienced a thinning of brain matter in the entorhinal cortex – the area that plays a role in memory and spatial orientation – before significant levels of amyloid had accumulated.”

First author Dr Kelsey Thomas said the new findings could help to refocus research.

“A method of identifying individuals at risk of progression to [Alzheimer’s disease] using neuropsychological measures has the potential to improve early detection in those who may otherwise not be eligible for more expensive or invasive screening,” he said.

Dementia is the second leading cause of death of Australians and in 2016 became the leading cause of death of Australian women.

In 2019, there were an estimated 447,115 Australians living with dementia, according to dementia.org.au, and without a medical breakthrough that number is expected to increase to 589,807 by 2028 and 1,076,129 by 2058.

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Written by Janelle Ward

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