Good News: potential breakthrough in treating Alzheimer's
Next up is something that I would more usually include in an episode of our occasional feature, And Another Thing, our occasional foray into cool science stuff, but I think it's important enough to be up front here.
Researchers at Duke University have made what is a potential breakthrough in the treatment of Alzheimer's, the disease of as-yet-unknown cause that undermines brain function.
Neurons in your brain are cells that process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. Those signals are passed across a gap between neurons via synapses.
What happens in Alzheimer's is that plaques build up along the nerve fibers and in the gaps, inhibiting the flow of information and so damaging brain function.
The result is that the cerebral cortex can atrophy and shrink and areas of the brain fill with fluid - the dark areas in the image to the right.
The Duke studies were done on mice and in these studies the researchers noticed that in Alzheimer’s, immune cells that normally protect the brain instead begin to consume a vital nutrient called arginine.
By blocking this process with a drug known by the abbreviated name DFMO, they were able to prevent the formation of those plaques in the brain and halted memory loss in the mice.
Now, mice often serve as an effective analog for human functions, but you can never guarantee that a procedure that worked with mice will work with humans. Still, there are two particular reasons to celebrate this discovery:
One is that it can break Alzheimer's research out of the box it's gotten stuck in of focusing almost entirely on amyloid, the protein that builds the plaques. That focus has not lead to marketable - and highly profitable - drugs, so of course the pharmaceutical corporations are losing interest in Alzheimer's research even as the number of Alzheimer's sufferers grows.
The other is that DFMO is already being studied in drug trials for certain types of cancer - so instead of the five, ten, or even 15 year gaps that are often seen between a finding like this one and the beginning of clinical trials, DFMO could be cleared for human trials quite soon.
And yes, that is Good News.
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