The Big Bang of Alzheimer’s

The Big Bang of Alzheimer’s

The cure of Alzheimer’s could be on the cards as a team of scientists at the UT Southwestern makes an incredible progress.

Alzheimer’s is a chronic neurodegenerative disease which grows with time. Due to the fact that researchers have poor understanding of this disease, we have no known treatment to stop or reverse this problem. Scientists are striving extremely hard to get as much information as possible about Alzheimer’s so that a permanent solution could be formulated. A recent development in this regard will boost the chances many times as researchers found a ‘Big Bang’ of the disease. It refers to a state where a healthy protein becomes toxic but hasn’t started to spread to other parts of the brain.

The scientists of the O’Donnell Brain Institute at the UT Southwestern examined a Tau molecule to see what changes occur in it as a person develops Alzheimer’s. They observed that this protein changes its shape right at the beginning of the disease. The scientists are very hopeful to find new ways of treating this disease as it will become detectable before the emergence of its major symptoms. Dr. Mark Diamond, who is the Director for UT Southwestern’s Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, has done tremendous amount of work in this field. It was him who determined that Tau is an infectious protein with an ability to self-replicate itself. He led the research and summarized it in the following words:

This is perhaps the biggest finding we have made to date, though it will likely be some time before any benefits materialize in the clinic. This changes much of how we think about the problem.”

Prior to this discovery, most of the research focused on a specific protein called Amyloid Beta. According to medical experts, the clumping of this protein was the primary pathological cause which led to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. However, repeated failures in an attempt to target the plagues of this protein forced the researchers to look for an alternative option and that is where research on Tau began. After making some initial observations, scientists concluded that an isolated Tau protein is not dangerous at all but it starts hurting you as soon as it combines with its companions. This joining of the Tau proteins results in the formation of the distinct tangles that are observed inside the brains of an infected patient.

In order to perform this experiment, scientists extracted Tau proteins from a human brain to isolate them so that they should behave as single molecules. The researchers observed that the infected form of the protein exposes a part of itself that is generally folded inside. That portion is responsible for the tangles as other Tau proteins attach to that part. Ultimately, the neurons are killed and that can have severe outcomes. Dr. Diamond identified the benefit of his discovery while appreciating the efforts of his friend by saying,

We think of this as the Big Bang of tau pathology. This is a way of peering to the very beginning of the disease process. It moves us backward to a very discreet point where we see the appearance of the first molecular change that leads to neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s. This work relied on a close collaboration with my colleague, Dr. Lukasz Joachimiak.”

According to Dr. Diamond, things will change pretty rapidly, following this finding, as the experts will be able to diagnose the disease at its earliest stage. He presented two prospective pathways to the world, which will be followed by his team, to ensure that Alzheimer’s can be cured. First and foremost is the development of a clinical test which should detect the signs of abnormal Tau protein before major symptoms appear. Ideally, they would want to get that done through a blood test but they may look for spinal fluid if things don’t go as planned. Once you have diagnosed a patient with a harmful Tau protein, you need to have a treatment for that and creating something useful in this regard is the second part of their future plans.

He suggested that a newly approved drug called Tafamidis, which is used to prevent accumulation of Transthyretin (a different shape-shifting protein which affects human heart), could be analyzed as it is being used effectively in Japan and Europe these days. He said,

“The hunt is on to build on this finding and make a treatment that blocks the neurodegeneration process where it begins. If it works, the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease could be substantially reduced. That would be amazing.”

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