Communion Of Dreams

This is hopeful.
February 26, 2009, 10:45 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Daily Kos, Health, NPR, Science

From NPR, word that there may have been a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s Disease research:

Mad Cow And Alzheimer’s Have Surprising Link

Scientists have discovered a surprising link between Alzheimer’s disease and mad cow disease. It turns out both diseases involve something called a prion protein.

The finding, which appears in the journal Nature, could explain one of the great mysteries in Alzheimer’s disease: How components of the plaques that form in patient’s brains are able to damage brain cells. It also could point the way to new treatments for the disease.

“It’s very exciting,” says Lennart Mucke, director of the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease and a professor of neurology and neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco. “The study shines the light on a very unexpected component.”

OK, first off, I think the title of the NPR piece is somewhat misleading.  Here’s what Nature has:

‘Harmless’ prion protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease

Non-infectious prion proteins found in the brain may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, researchers have found.

The surprising new results, reported this week in Nature1, show that normal prion proteins produced naturally in the brain interact with the amyloid-β peptides that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Blocking this interaction in preparations made from mouse brains halted some neurological defects caused by the accumulation of amyloid-β peptide. It was previously thought that only infectious prion proteins, rather than their normal, non-infectious counterparts, played a role in brain degeneration.

The results have yet to be confirmed in humans, but suggest that targeting the non-infectious prion protein (PrPc) could provide an alternative route to treating Alzheimer’s disease. “The need is huge,” says Paul Aisen, an Alzheimer’s researcher based at the neurosciences department of the University of California, San Diego. “And it’s great news for the field when a new idea is brought forth with strong evidence that can lead to new therapeutic strategies.”

Why did NPR choose to tie it to Mad Cow? Probably because that’s the only real handle most people, even NPR’s relatively well-informed listeners, have on any kind of prion disease.  So they decided to use this link.  Which may be unfortunate, if it contributes to speculation and fear that somehow Mad Cow disease leads to Alzheimer’s.

But the research is quite interesting, and a significant breakthrough.  For a while, amyloid plaque has been understood to play a role in Alzheimer’s, but no one could quite figure out what exactly that role was.  Tying it to prions gives a mechanism that explains how the plaque damages the brain and leads to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  Furthermore, as noted in the stories cited, it offers a very promising strategy for countering the disease.  And because of all the work which has been done on Mad Cow disease (and prion disease generally), these proteins are fairly well understood, meaning that it is likely that researchers will be able to come up with specific treatment regimens.

This is hopeful.  Very hopeful.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to dKos.)

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