‘Housekeeping’ molecule could prevent Alzheimer’s

Dr Samuel Cohen said results of hard work were paying off. Picture: PA
Dr Samuel Cohen said results of hard work were paying off. Picture: PA
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A MOLECULE which could block the progress of Alzheimer’s by stopping the death of brain cells may help researchers find a treatment.

The “housekeeping” molecule, which occurs naturally in humans, has been identified by scientists who believe it could break the cycle of events which leads to the most common form of dementia.

The discovery moves researchers a step closer to finding a substance that could eventually be used to treat the disease.

Lead author of the study, Samuel Cohen, a research Fellow at St John’s College, said: “A great deal of work in this field has gone into understanding which microscopic processes are important in the development of Alzheimer’s disease; we are now starting to reap the rewards of this hard work.

“Our study shows, for the first time, one of these critical processes being specifically inhibited, and reveals that by doing so we can prevent the toxic effects of protein aggregation that are associated with this terrible ­condition.”

Proteins play an important function in the body, but sometimes they can “misform” and kick-start conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

The newly discovered molecule sticks to threads of malfunctioning proteins – hallmarks of the disease – and stops them coming into contact with other proteins, avoiding toxic clusters which enable the condition to spread in the brain.

The team modelled what happens during the progression of the condition and what might happen if one stage of the process is “switched off”.

Dr Cohen said that results indicated that the molecule, Brichos, acted as a “chaperone” that helps proteins to avoid misforming and gathering by forming a coating that prevents other proteins being affected.

Further tests on mice confirmed that the chain reaction that leads to Alzheimer’s was suppressed.

Dr Cohen said: “It may not actually be too difficult to find other molecules that do this, it’s just that it hasn’t been clear what to look for until recently.

“It’s striking that nature – through molecular chaperones – has evolved a similar approach to our own by focusing on very specifically inhibiting the key steps leading to Alzheimer’s.

“A good tactic now is to search for other molecules that have this same highly targeted effect and to see if these can be used as the starting point for developing a future therapy.”

The research was carried out by an international team made up of academics from the department of chemistry at the University of Cambridge, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Lund University, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Tallinn University. The findings are reported in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology.

Dr Laura Phipp, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Alzheimer’s is a complex disease, and further research will be needed to understand whether this approach could help stop its catastrophic effects in people.

“The more we know about the different molecular mechanisms driving Alzheimer’s, the better equipped we will be to fight the disease.”

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