Scientists nix Alzheimer’s-causing brain plaques in mice. Could humans be next?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting roughly 5.7 million Americans at this moment. In 2018, Alzheimer’s and other dementias will cost the U.S. an estimated $277 billion — not to mention the immeasurable amount of emotion labor it inflicts on patients and their careers. Unfortunately, right now it is an incurable disease for those affected by it. While that will remain true for the time being, a promising new piece of research suggests that there may soon be a way to better treat or even prevent the disease altogether. In experiments with mice, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine have demonstrated that it is possible to remove the plaques which begin forming in the brains of future Alzheimer’s patients, sometimes years before the disease manifests.

These sticky masses are called amyloid plaques. As they form in the brain, they damage nearby cells. The plaques are made up of a brain protein called amyloid beta, along with another Alzheimer’s protein called Apolipoprotein E (ApoE). In their study, the Washington University researchers demonstrated that a DNA-based compound can be made to target ApoE in a way that also removes the plaques. It does this without removing the ApoE protein which is present in our blood and brain.

The DNA-based compound is an antibody called HAE-4. It was given to the mice in the study for six weeks and was found to cut the level of plaques in half. It could represent a new treatment for Alzheimer’s, without the side effects of some current alternatives.

“It is possible that what we have shown in mice with anti-ApoE antibodies in the future could move into human trials,” Dr. David Holtzman, head of the Department of Neurology, told Digital Trends. “Part of this will have to do with whether the effects we have seen in mice is similar to what is seen with anti-amyloid beta antibodies, but yet has less side effects. That remains to be determined.”

While it’s still far too soon to start celebrating the idea of a medicine people could proactively take to delay or stop the onset of Alzheimer’s, this still represents incredibly exciting research. Let’s hope that the subsequent steps prove as promising as the initial developments.