Researchers See Possibility of Alzheimer's Vaccine

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Canadian scientists, partnering with a pharmaceutical firm, have achieved a major breakthrough in Alzheimer's disease research. They now see the possibility of developing a vaccine to help patients with this form of dementia and those who face elevated risk factors for it.

The team, made up of researchers from Quebec's L'Université Laval and the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), uncovered a way to stimulate natural defense mechanisms in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, according to ScienceDaily. The discovery paves the way for development of a treatment for the illness and a vaccine to prevent it.

The Mayo Clinic says Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia. It causes brain cells to degenerate and die, creating a progressive loss of memory and mental function. Individuals with a first-degree relative -- a parent, sibling, or child -- face an elevated risk of developing the disorder.

The Alzheimer's Association indicates that 5.4 million Americans have this type of dementia, including one of every eight older individuals. It ranks sixth as a leading cause of death in the United States. Although doctors prescribe two types of drugs to treat associated cognitive symptoms, it's the only illness in the top 10 that the medical community can't prevent, cure, or slow in its progression.

In an Alzheimer's patient, the brain produces a toxic substance known as amyloid beta that builds up as deposits called senile plaques. The individual's microglial cells, which function as defenders of the nervous system, cannot eliminate amyloid beta.

The Canadian team's major discovery was the identification of a molecule, monophosphoryl lipid A (MPL), that spurs immune cells in the brain into action. GSK has used the molecule in other work safely for years.

After injecting mice weekly with MPL for 12 weeks, the researchers found that as many as 80 percent of the rodents' senile plaques had disappeared. The mice also showed improved ability to learn new tasks.

The researchers envision several eventual uses for MPL. Injected intramuscularly to Alzheimer's patients, it would slow the progress of the disorder. MPL in a vaccine could give a jump-start to the natural immunity of Alzheimer's patients to produce antibodies against amyloid beta. The vaccine could also function as a preventive measure for individuals with elevated risk factors for the disease.

My husband's family history includes Alzheimer's disease. He is often plagued by memories of his elderly father, who died in a house fire he could not escape due to the disease. Every time my husband sees a familiar face that lacks a name or forgets to run an errand, he fears that he too will soon become a victim of this devastating illness. A major Alzheimer's breakthrough linked to the possibility of a vaccine offers a lot of hope to him and to others who fear this disease.

Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.

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