There was much excitement last week about a study claiming to have found a vaccine to fight Alzheimer’s disease, but how does it work and is it really something to get excited about?
Research was published last week on a vaccine which claimed to help beat dementia, and was met with much fanfare – the condition is, after all, something that could potentially affect 135 million across the world by 2050. Currently, drugs for dementia can help to slow the condition, but nothing actually cures it or prevents it from appearing altogether.
Scientists from Flinders University in Australia and the Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of California have carried out tests on mice to create a “breakthrough” vaccine which uses the body’s immune system antibodies to attack the protein believe to cause Alzheimer’s disease.
The vaccine is reputed to target both beta-amyloid and tau proteins (which cause the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s).
Flinders University medicine professor Nikolai Petrovsky said:
‘If we are successful in (human) clinical trials, in three to five years we could be well on the way to one of the most important developments in recent medical history.’
‘Essentially what we have designed is a vaccine that makes the immune system produce antibodies and those antibodies act like tow trucks so they come to your driveway, they latch on to the breakdown protein or car and they pull it out of the driveway.’
However, some experts in the dementia community have warned about getting too excited about the news, given that it has yet to go through extensive human trials.
Only 0.4 per cent of the almost 250 potential treatments for dementia tested between 2002 and 2012 have been successful.
Moreover, studies which harness the body’s immune system to fight the damaging effects of beta-amyloid and tau proteins haven’t always proved successful, and some (in the case of a 2002 study by Ireland-based firm Elan) have been dangerous and had to be abandoned.
Professor Paul Morgan, Director of Systems Immunity Research Institute at Cardiff University doesn’t dismiss vaccines entirely – but is wary:
‘There is a long and tortuous history underlying attempts to use immunisation to reduce the burden of amyloid and or tau pathology in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.’
So what does mean for the 850,000 people with dementia in the UK right now? Realistically, someone who has already been diagnosed with dementia may not be able to receive the vaccine in time, as it still needs to go through human trials, something which has led to the disappearance of multiple dementia “breakthroughs” and “cures”. The brain of a mouse is very different to that of a human.
Despite this, it doesn’t mean you can’t get involved and support dementia research and trials. In fact, Alzheimer’s Research UK have today called on people to become volunteers for dementia trials in the UK because they’re in desperate need of more study participants as the number of clinical trials has almost doubled in three years.
It can be tempting to feel that with no obvious cure on the horizon, there’s nothing you can do. However, by getting involved in clinical studies you could potentially help to identify what would undoubtedly be the most important scientific breakthrough of the 21 century so far.
If you’re interested in joining a study, click here.