Scientists have discovered a “neurostatin” drug which could be widely distributed to halt the early development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Anti-cancer drug bexarotene has been shown to prevent early brain changes linked to Alzheimer’s in laboratory tests and experts hope it could help prevent the disease’s onset, where tangles of toxic protein accumulate in the brain.
These drugs have been termed “neurostatins” as they could be used in the same way that statins are to curb the risk of heart disease.
Professor Michele Vendruscolo, from Cambridge University, who is leading the research, said: “This in terms of an approach for Alzheimer’s disease would be the equivalent of what statins do for heart conditions.
“So you would take them well in advance of developing the condition to reduce your risk.
“The dream would be to find a compound which is cheap and safe and therefore can be given early to everybody.”
Alzheimer’s occurs in old age when natural defences that prevent the formation of proteins in the brain begins to fail, he said.
Bexarotene was the first of about a dozen potential neurostatins identified by the scientists, whose research was reported in the journal Science Advances yesterday.
Tests on genetically modified worms showed that bexarotene delayed or prevented the formation of clumps of fragments of beta-amyloid protein, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.
The drug only worked when it was given to the worm early, raising questions over when people would have to start taking the pills if they were to prove effective.
Professor June Andrews, director of the Dementia Services Development Centre at Stirling University, said: “It’s not a cure, it is preventative, and we are a long way from this being used on a human being.
“There are many questions about when you would need to start taking it. It also raises the question of whether you would be prepared to take pills all your life, just in case you get Alzheimer’s.”
Jim Pearson, director of policy and research at Alzheimer Scotland, said: “It is promising to see the potential for existing drug treatments to be considered in new approaches to dementia. The time and cost of bringing completely new medications to market are considerable and this greatly slows the progress of dementia research.”