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New Vaccine To Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?

Researchers at the University of New Mexico (UNM) have come up with an innovative way to fight Alzheimer’s disease (AD). They are attempting to treat the disease before it even begins through the use of an AD vaccine. While normal vaccines prevent contagious diseases by giving your body immunity by exposure to either a weakened or dead form of the disease, this vaccine uses virus-like particles to help prevent protein accumulation in the brain.1

How Alzheimer’s disease develops

When patients have AD, there are many things that happen to the brain and the neurons. Patients have the formation of beta amyloid plaques that form between the neurons in the brain, disrupting how the neurons interact.2 Another key factor in AD is the formation of threads inside the neurons called tau tangles. Tau tangles occur when tau proteins inside the neurons stick to each other in threads that eventually tangle and block the neuron’s communication system.2 Researchers have found evidence that amyloid plaques and tau tangles both play an important part in AD, and that they may actually work together in the formation of the disease.

Stopping tau tangles from forming

The researchers at UNM concentrated their effort on how to stop tau tangles from forming. About five years ago they began researching a way for the body to use its own immune system to create antibodies against the tangles.1 They began testing their vaccine on mice that are bred specifically to have AD-like symptoms. When these mice were injected with the vaccine, their bodies created antibodies that stopped the tau tangles and furthermore, their brains didn’t shrink as much as the mice that did not receive the vaccine. Brain shrinking in AD patients is usually due to neuron damage. This reduced shrinking may be a sign that the vaccine is capable of protecting the neurons in the brain.1 The researchers also noted that the vaccines appeared to be effective for the duration of a few months.

Still a long way to go

While this research offers a lot of hope in the fight against AD, it should be noted that this research is still in its beginning stages. Getting a medication or vaccine from the bench (this is the term for the science that happens before a medication is ready for human research) to a Phase I human subjects trial can take years, if not decades.1 This vaccine is still many years away from trials in humans if it even makes it to that point. Many medications that work in mice do not work in humans.

The other limiting factor in getting this research to human subjects trials is money. It can take millions, if not billions of dollars to get a medication to trial, and still more once it is in trial.1 The researchers are currently working on partnerships to fund their vaccine, as well as seeking research grants and small business funding.

While this vaccine may not be available any time in the near future, it can help drive the direction of other research. Other researchers may be able to use this information to help find other treatments that target tau tangles, and how these tangles interact with amyloid plaques in the AD process. Studies like this can help shift and guide the direction of other studies and lead to other new treatments and preventions in the fight against AD.

  1. Memory Preserver. UNM Health Sciences Center. http://hscnews.unm.edu/news/memory-preserver. Published 2019. Accessed July 31, 2019.
  2. What Happens to the Brain in Alzheimer's Disease?. National Institute on Aging. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-happens-brain-alzheimers-disease. Published 2019. Accessed July 31, 2019.

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