An existing diabetes drug may hold promise for treating Alzheimer's disease, researchers say.
In experiments on laboratory mice that express the human mutated genes causing Alzheimer's, the drug "significantly reversed memory loss", helping these mice show improved memory formation and learning in maze tests.
The research was conducted at the UK's Lancaster University, where lead researcher Christian Holscher expressed optimism the treatment could heal the neurological damage of chronic cognitive disorders like Alzheimer's disease.
An estimated 5.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease, which gradually erodes memory function and is ultimately fatal. Despite several promising developments over the last decade, there is still no cure.
More supportive than groundbreaking
James Hendrix, Ph.D., Director of Global Science Initiatives, Alzheimer's Association, says the work is more supportive than groundbreaking, since there are already clinical trials in humans underway.
"We've known for some time that diabetes is a risk factor for Alzheimer's, and other diabetic drugs are currently being tested in clinical trials," Hendrix told ConsumerAffairs.
Hendrix notes that the study required daily injections of the drug, something not as feasible for human patients. And just because the drug appeared to be effective in mice does not mean it would have the same effect on humans.
"It's always unclear how animal data will translate to humans," Hendrix said. "Animal models have been poor in predicting human efficacy for Alzheimer's disease therapies."
In recent years researchers have established a link between diabetes and Alzheimer's. According to the Mayo Clinic, a number of studies have suggested that people with diabetes–especially type 2 diabetes–are at higher risk of eventually developing Alzheimer's or other dementias.
One complication of diabetes is damage to blood vessels, which may increase the risk of vascular dementia. Reduced blood flow to the brain, it is believed, may cause reduced memory function.
Despite these and other complicating factors, researchers see reason for hope.
They note the Lancaster study is the first time that a triple receptor drug has been used in multiple ways to protect the brain from degeneration. Its three main ingredients are all growth factors.
That may be significant because problems with growth factor signalling have appeared in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.
Alzheimer's Association scientists say more research is needed. If the drug is shown to have the same effects in people as it does in mice, it would have to go through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process before it could be cleared as an Alzheimer's disease treatment.