A recent breakthrough by UK researchers has raised the prospect of treating a variety of in brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, with the same drug. In a study, published in Nature, scientists managed to prevent brain cells dying in mice with prion disease. Though at an early stage the findings have been heralded as ‘fascinating’. Neuro-degenerative diseases result in the build-up of proteins which are not put together correctly – known as misfolded proteins. This happens in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s as well as in prion diseases, such as the human form of mad cow disease.
Because the process by which prion disease affects mice brains is similar to some degenerative brain conditions in humans, scientists are hoping that the findings could be a breakthrough in the treatment of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. In each case, brain cell death is linked to the build-up of misshapen proteins, forming plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers and lewy bodies in the nerve cells of those with Parkinson’s, the journal Nature reports. In the mice with prion disease, researchers found that when the faulty proteins begin to accumulate, their cells activated a defence mechanism which halted the production of such proteins, according to the Telegraph.
The halt ought to be temporary, but in the diseased mice the production of proteins, crucial to cell survival, did not start up again. Scientists found that by injecting a different protein which prevents the supply from being “switched off”, they could protect the mice’s brain cells for longer and extend their lives. Giovanna Mallucci, professor at Leicester University, who led the research, said that it could provide a “way forward in how we treat other disorders.”
Roger Morris, professor at the School of Biomedical Sciences at King’s College London, described the findings as a “major breakthrough” and said there were ‘good reasons’ for thinking it could also apply to Alzheimer’s. But Eric Karran, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, warned that the research on the prion protein was in its “early stages” and added: “We would need to see the same results confirmed in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to really strengthen the evidence.”