Listen Live

Researchers are celebrating successful trials of a drug that could not only treat someone who has Alzheimer’s, but also vaccinate people against the mind-wasting disease.

>> Read more trending news

In what could be a “transformative” leap in the treatment and eventual prevention of the disease, scientists say they have been able to reverse memory loss in mice with features of Alzheimer’s and are ready to move on to human trials.

“While the science is currently still at an early stage, if these results were to be replicated in human clinical trials, then it could be transformative,” professor Mark Carr of the Institute of Structural and Chemical Biology at the University of Leicester told The Telegraph.

“It opens up the possibility to not only treat Alzheimer’s once symptoms are detected, but also to potentially vaccinate against the disease before symptoms appear.”

It is estimated that 5.8 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s in the United States.

A research team at the University Medical Center Göttingen in Germany and University of Leicester collaborated with scientists at LifeArc, a self-financing medical research charity, to develop the vaccine.

The research has received praise from some of those studying the disease.

“In this thorough and well-conducted research carried out in mice with features of Alzheimer’s disease, scientists found a vaccine administered through injection found the intended target and helped improve metabolism in brain regions associated with memory and thinking,” said Susan Kohlhaas, who is director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK and has a PhD in cancer biology from the University of Leicester.

“Early results in a behavioral task suggest the mice had improved memory and thinking, hinting that this could be a promising new approach, and one that has so far not been tested in Alzheimer’s drugs in clinical trials.”

Here’s what we know about it now:

What is it?

The vaccine targets a certain protein in the brain that becomes twisted and sticky, eventually blocking the brain’s normal function, leading to Alzheimer’s.

How does it work?

The drug was developed after scientists recently discovered that an amyloid protein in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s folds itself into a structure that resembles a hairpin. The hairpin structure is what damages communication between neurons in the brain, preventing normal function in those with Alzheimer’s.

After the discovery of the hairpin amyloid, researchers created a hairpin-shaped amyloid protein to be used in a vaccine.

The researchers theorized that the vaccine would spur the body to produce antibodies that looked for the specific hairpin protein shape and would teach the body to fight off those proteins.

Another advantage to engineering the vaccine amyloid in the specific hairpin shape of the amyloids that do damage in Alzheimer’s, is that other amyloid proteins needed by the body are spared.

In other words, the vaccine goes after only the hairpin amyloid that leads to Alzheimer’s.

How did it work in the trials?

Scientists said the vaccine worked well in the trials with mice who had Alzheimer’s features, and that they are encouraged about human trials.

The vaccine was shown to trigger antibodies that helped with the communication between neurons in the mice who had memory loss similar to what a human suffers with Alzheimer’s.

The vaccine was found to increase glucose metabolism in the brain, reverse memory loss and reduce the formation of plaque, or abnormal clusters of protein fragments that build up between nerve cells, according to the researchers.

How soon could we see it?

While researchers are encouraged by the results, some warn a vaccine could be a long way off.

“The vaccine causes the immune systems of the mice to react to one of the pathological proteins that clumps in Alzheimer’s disease,” professor Tara Spires-Jones of the UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Edinburgh, told the Telegraph.

“While this study is interesting for the research community, it is important to keep in mind that the findings are from relatively small numbers of mice and we have a long way to go to know whether this approach will be useful for people,” Spires-Jones said.

A human trial is starting in Boston

The Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston announced Tuesday that it is launching the first ever human trial for an Alzheimer’s vaccine. The trial will test a nasal vaccine that “could prevent and slow the progression” of the disease, according to researchers.

The trial will be testing a drug called Protollin, which is a “nasal vaccine.”

“The immune system plays a very important role in all neurologic diseases,” said Dr. Howard Weiner in a press release. Weiner has led research into treating Alzheimer’s with this nasal medicine for around two decades.

“And it’s exciting that after 20 years of preclinical work, we can finally take a key step forward toward clinical translation and conduct this landmark first human trial.”