University of New Mexico researchers are testing a vaccine that may prevent Alzheimer’s disease. The project began five years ago and has been positively tested on mice, but has not yet been shown to work on humans.
The vaccine works by targeting a specific protein, tau, that is commonly found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Tau is supposed to function as a stabilizing structure inside neurons, however when these proteins accumulate they create long tangles that interfere with neurons’ communication abilities. This disruption is what causes the memory problems characteristic of Alzheimer’s.
Mice who received the vaccine outperformed their non-vaccinated counterparts in a series of maze-like tests. The vaccine created antibodies that removed the tau protein from their brains and remained clear for several months after treatment.
Results from these trials indicate that targeting tau tangles could rescue memory impairments and keep neurons from dying. Due to this, researchers believe this application could expand beyond Alzheimer’s and may help treat dementia, traumatic brain injury, and chronic encephalopathy (brain disease, damage, or malfunction).
However promising, drugs that have been shown to work in mice do not always work for humans. The vaccine will need to undergo a clinical trial before the drug can be used in Alzheimer’s patients, which is often an expensive undertaking, however lead researcher Kirin Bashkar, Ph.D. is hopeful that the project will be funded.
Other vaccines that target tau and amyloid proteins have also been conducted in trials and show promise. A clinical trial conducted in Dublin earlier this year reported that 96 percent of patients responded to the vaccine. Last December, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center also reported reduced tau proteins in tests on three different mammals. If these types of vaccines become readily available, the potential to decrease the number of cases of Alzheimer’s and other dementia, could be substantial but would require early intervention.
Current tests that are designed to detect Alzheimer’s, especially in the early stages, are still being refined. The process for diagnosis can be difficult and time-consuming, including cognitive tests, family and friend interviews, and a PET scan or through a cerebrospinal fluid test. Studies have shown that in some cases dementia has the potential to show up in the brain before a person experiences any symptoms. Standardizing brain tests for prevention, such as use of an MRI scan, could be a solution to early diagnosis where these types of vaccines could have a higher rate of success.