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Chemical method could help Alzheimer's treatment

This article was published on 30 May 2013

Scientists at Callaghan Innovation and the University of Liverpool have developed a new chemical approach to help harness the natural ability of complex sugars to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

The team used a new chemical method to produce a library of sugars, called heparan sulphates, which are known to control the formation of the proteins in the brain that cause memory loss.

Heparan sulphates are found in nearly every cell of the body, and are similar to the natural blood-thinning drug, heparin. Now the scientists have discovered how to produce them chemically in the lab, and found that some of these sugars can inhibit an enzyme that creates small proteins in the brain.

These proteins, called amyloid, disrupt the normal function of cells leading to the progressive memory loss that is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

Professor Jerry Turnbull, from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology, said: “We are targeting an enzyme, called BACE, which is responsible for creating the amyloid protein.  The amyloid builds up in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease and causes damage.  BACE has proved to be a difficult  enzyme to block despite lots of efforts by drug companies.” 

“We are using a new approach, harnessing the natural ability of sugars, based on the blood-thinning drug heparin, to block the action of BACE.”

Dr Peter Tyler, from Callaghan Innovation, added: “We have developed new chemical methods that have allowed us to make the largest set of these sugars produced to date.  These new compounds will now be tested to identify those with the best activity and fewest possible side effects, as these have potential for development into a drug treatment that targets the underlying cause of this disease.”

There are more than 800,000 people in the United Kingdom, and 50,000 in New Zealand, living with dementia. Over half of these people have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia. The cost of these diseases to the UK economy stands at £23bn, more than the cost of cancer and heart disease combined.  The estimated cost to treat Alzheimer’s disease in New Zealand in 2011 was $954 million, and deaths from Alzheimer’s disease had increased by 346% in New Zealand between 1990 and 2010. Current treatments for dementia can help with symptoms, but there are no drugs available that can slow or stop the underlying disease.

The research, published in Chemistry A European Journal, is supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Research UK, and New Zealand Government research grants.