A MAJOR breakthrough in Alzheimer’s research holds out hope not only of early detection of the crippling brain disease but also of potential new treatments.
Scientists have unravelled the precise function of genes known to make people more at risk of developing the illness.
The groundbreaking findings could lead to a simple new treatment for people at risk of dementia which would be the “holy grail” of research into Alzheimer’s.
More than 800,000 people in the UK have dementia, with around 60 per cent suffering from Alzheimer’s, and the number of cases is set to double within a generation.
An estimated 455,486 people are living with the disease undiagnosed and dementia costs the UK economy £17billion a year.
There is no cure or effective treatment and current drugs only help people manage some of their symptoms.
Researchers in the new study used yeast to unravel how the genes known to affect the risk of Alzheimer’s work on cells in the brain.
They show for the first time that the risk genes affect a hallmark protein in Alzheimer’s called amyloid.
Two previous studies co-funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK identified nine genes which were associated with Alzheimer’s, but their exact function in the disease remained unclear.
The new research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered that amyloid was disrupting a vital process in yeast called endocytosis, which transports important molecules into and around cells. It found that a number of the genes, including one called Picalm, could influence amyloid’s ability to disrupt endocytosis.
It provides a previously unknown link between the genes and the amyloid protein, and sets a new direction for treatment research.
Professor Julie Williams of Cardiff University, chief scientific adviser to Alzheimer’s Research UK said: “In 2009 we discovered that the gene Picalm affected the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. We have since identified a further three genes which, together with Picalm, show for the first time that the process of endocytosis may play an important role in Alzheimer’s.
“This study now brings the pieces of the puzzle together and shows that Picalm influences the damaging effects of amyloid.
“Our genetic discoveries are now pinpointing new disease mechanisms which can lead to the development of new treatments. This is enormously exciting.”
Dr Marie Janson from Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “We are very excited by these promising results.”
The researchers worked on the role of the Alzheimer’s risk genes not only in yeast, but also in more complex models using worms and rat brain cells.
Their results are published in the journal Science.