Mayo Clinic Minute: Seeing Alzheimer’s in a new way
Scientists at the University of New Mexico say they have developed a new vaccine that protects against Alzheimer’s disease in mice. And now they hope to see if it works in humans, too.
“We’ve got to make sure that we have a clinical version of the vaccine so that we can test in people,” Kiran Bhaskar, a health sciences professor at the Albuquerque university, told KRQE.
In the United States alone, there are 5.8 million patients living with Alzheimer’s, a brain disease that causes memory loss, mood changes, confusion and difficulty communicating in older people, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The New Mexico researchers said that’s nearly one in every three seniors — and the number of Americans who suffer from the disease is expected to rise to almost 14 million by 2050, the Alzheimer’s Association predicts.
Researchers said the disease is “a perfect storm of destruction in the brain,” which is the result of long tangles of a protein known as tau that build up in brain neurons. The proteins are supposed to help stabilize neurons — but when they accumulate they can prevent neurons from working together as they should, according to a university news release on the research.
That’s where the vaccine comes in: It works by keeping those tau protein tangles from building up, researchers said. The researchers wrote in a paper published last week in the journal NPJ Vaccines that the vaccine — which they created with virus-like particles, or VLPs — successfully helped mice develop antibodies to get rid of tau tangles. The mice studied had been genetically engineered to have Alzheimer’s.
VLPs are created by stripping away a virus’s genome while leaving behind its outer protein shell. That means the virus can’t reproduce in a host’s body, but can still trigger an immune response — encouraging the host’s immune system to create antibodies like the kind that eliminated tau tangles in the mice in the study, according to researchers.
“We’re excited by these findings, because they seem to suggest that we can use the body’s own immune system to make antibodies against these tangles, and that these antibodies actually bind and clear these tau tangles,” Nicole Maphis, a PhD candidate in the school’s Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program, said in a statement.
Vaccinated mice were subjected to maze-like tests, and did “remarkably better” than their unvaccinated counterparts, researchers said, adding that MRI scans on vaccinated mice revealed “less brain shrinkage, suggesting that the vaccine prevented neurons from dying.”
What’s more, the research showed the vaccine resulted in fewer tau tangles in parts of the brain that are critical to memory and learning.
“These results confirm that targeting tau tangles using a vaccine intervention could rescue memory impairments and prevent neurons from dying,” Maphis said in a statement.
Testing the vaccine in people could cost around $2 million, KRQE reports.
Researchers said they’re looking for funding to commercialize the vaccine, though it could be decades.