Without intervention, cases of Alzheimer’s disease are expected to jump nearly 200 percent by 2050, but new research is giving scientists hope that a vaccine, and ultimately an end to the severe cognitive disease, is within reach.
Targeting the amyloid plaques and tangled proteins in the brain that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, the new vaccine – so far successful in animal trials – could mark a significant breakthrough in the brain health of an aging population.
“If we are successful in pre-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,” said Nikolai Petrovsky, a professor at Flinders University School of Medicine in Australia and co-author of a recent study in Nature Scientific Reports touting the vaccine’s promise.
People with Alzheimer’s disease have an abundance of beta-amyloid plaques and twisted protein fibers called tau. These clumps of neural material build up between nerve cells in the brain and, in the case of tau, within brain cells themselves. Ultimately, they cut off brain signals and lead to diminished cognitive functioning.
“Plaques and tangles are prime suspects in cell death and tissue loss in the Alzheimer’s brain,” describes the Alzheimer’s Association.
The new approach specifically targets plaques and tau. The approach uses a “combination of anti-amyloid-beta and anti-tau” therapy, during which antibodies from the vaccine attach to the plaques and tangles in the brain tissue and essentially prevent them from clumping together or dying.
The vaccine is built on Advax technology from vaccine research company Vaxine Pty Ltd., which previously developed the first swine flu vaccine in 2009. Petrovsky, a director at the South Australian-based Vaxine Pty Ltd., is working with researchers from the Institute of Molecular Medicine and the University of California, Irvine.
Using the new approach, the researchers believe they have multiple opportunities to thwart Alzheimer’s progression.
“This study suggests that we can immunize patients at the early stages of [Alzheimer’s disease], or even healthy people at risk for [Alzheimer’s], using our anti-amyloid-beta vaccine, and, if the disease progresses, then vaccinate with another anti-tau vaccine to increase effectiveness,” said co-author Anahit Ghochikyan with the Institute of Molecular Medicine.
The vaccine testing program is currently underway in pre-clinical trials, and the researchers plan to move forward with efficacy tests among human subjects once the pre-clinical trials conclude.
As the global population ages and morbidities threaten long-term cognitive health, the prospects of a vaccine could not arrive at a more opportune time. “Along with our rapidly aging populations, we now know that the explosion in type 2 diabetes in the West is likely to further dramatically fuel the projected rise in the number of cases of dementia globally, with diabetes being the major risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Petrovsky.
As the medical community watches the vaccine move ahead, you can take steps now to decrease your chances of developing dementia. Recent studies suggest that aerobic exercise can boost brain functioning, as can adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet. Also, avoiding a sedentary lifestyle can have long-lasting benefits on your overall health – including your brain health.
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.