Breakthrough drug developed in Scotland to halt progress of Alzheimer's disease
TauRx, an Aberdeenshire-based life sciences company, is on the verge of producing a medicine that can halt the deterioration of brain function in Alzheimer's patients - giving hope to the millions of dementia sufferers worldwide and potentially creating the first preventative treatment for a deteriorating brain disease.
Dementia is one of the UK’s leading causes of death and Alzheimer’s disease is responsible for 50 per cent of these cases - it is also set to affect more than a million UK residents by the middle of this century as the population ages further.
Improved treatment and care pathways for those with the condition is a priority for every UK government, including Scotland, but the causes of the disease are still poorly understood.
TauRx has now shared results from its late-stage clinical trial, LUCIDITY, providing evidence that its investigational drug leads to sustained cognitive improvement at an early, clinically detectable stage of Alzheimer’s – offering the prospect of improved brain function for patients.
The company is now pursuing regulatory submissions in the UK, US and Canada to prepare for market availability.
Dr Sonya Miller, the head of medical affairs at TauRx, said the new medicine aims to extend patients’ lives and crucially, their quality of life.
“It's been a 20 year process since the last medications were actually approved and they were symptomatic - they didn't attack the disease pathology itself, they just gave slight symptomatic relief,” said Dr Miller, referring to the class of drugs still used to treat Alzhemier’s symptoms today.
“There is a coming raft of oral medicine, including ours, which are disease-modifying, and the minute you produce a tablet, you increase the reach of the drug.
“They’re easy to store, easy to administer and everyone understands the treatment. People feel comfortable with it.”
Disease modifying “means that you can actually tackle the underlying pathology”, added Dr Miller.
“So the tau protein is one of the key pathologies of Alzheimer's disease. We stop the accumulation, the re-accumulation of this protein that causes problems. That’s the simple explanation.
“So if you can disease modify, you can stop a disease progressing, so you retain someone at the level they're at and you stop that potential progression, or further loss of function.”
Professor Claude Wischik, co-founder and executive chairman of TauRx, together with colleagues at the University of Aberdeen, has devoted nearly 30 years to investigating the structure and role of ‘tau tangles’ in the development of Alzheimer’s, frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and other neurodegenerative diseases.
These ‘tangles’ are abnormal proteins, called tau, which impair the brain function of Alzheimer’s sufferers, and Professor Wischik and the University of Aberdeen are the original discoverers of the composition of the tau protein pathology in Alzheimer’s.
The experimental compound involved in clinical trials belongs to a class of drugs known as Tau Aggregation Inhibitors.
According to TauRx, “by undoing the tangles that cause dementia, we aim to slow and potentially stop memory loss”.
The ultimate aim, according to Dr Miller, is to one day be able to prevent Alzheimer’s from causing impairment.
“Our long term aim, once we have proven [our treatment] and got it out into the population, is to say, look, this works across everybody, that we can stop the progression, then you can look at introducing it at an earlier stage,” said Dr Miller.
“So it becomes prophylactic. You can say to patients you won't ever reach this point [of disease progression]. You won't lose that function.
“You do screening with diagnostic tests and blood biomarkers. That's the ultimate aim - that you stop people ever getting to the point of having impairment.”
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has published its new dementia strategy, 'Everyone's Story', which recognises dementia as a condition of the brain that affects the whole person, while upscaling efforts to address its mental health and wellbeing impacts.
“I think it's really, really, really positive. It's exceptional,” said Dr Miller.
“I like the way they term it ‘everybody's story’ because it is - this disease is incredibly complex, and it affects anyone and everyone, it's not in isolation
“Some people say ‘oh, I will never get this, I will never be affected by this’ but this disease does not discriminate.
“So when they say everyone's story, that for me is such a good strapline or headline.”
It comes after the Scottish Government launched its strategy to “outline a vision for dementia policy over the next decade”. This includes support pre and post-diagnosis, actions to enable more people to live well in their communities, involving those affected in the design and delivery of their own support and access to care from a skilled and “trauma-informed” workforce when appropriate.
The strategy also commits to tackling stigma, something Dr Miller is passionate about.
“There are guidances and there is accessibility of services and support services but for dementia, this is still in its infancy and a lot of that has to do with the fact of the stigma associated with dementia,” Dr Miller said.
“The term itself is terrifying for people and it's a scary diagnosis and it doesn't need to be that's part of the re-education and the support that people need.”
The strategy, launched during Dementia Awareness Week, is a joint publication by the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla).
The government’s mental wellbeing minister, Maree Todd, said the strategy “sets out what we want to achieve and the difference we want to make to people’s lives”.
“Diagnosis can bring significant mental health and wellbeing challenges that need to be acknowledged and addressed to ensure a person’s rights are upheld,” said Ms Todd.
“That’s why the strategy was developed in collaboration with the National Dementia Lived Experience Panel. We want everyone affected to be involved in its delivery.”
Cosla’s health and social care spokesperson, councillor Paul Kelly, said: “We welcome this strategy as it rightly challenges us to do more and go even further, to continue to improve the care and support for people living with dementia and their care partners.
“Delivering it will require us all to continue to work collaboratively in a positive and proactive manner, while respecting each other’s different experiences of dementia.”
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