The Grapevine

Alzheimer’s Disease Vaccine: Medical Breakthrough Could Prevent Mental Illness

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an insurmountable epidemic will hit the U.S. by 2050, affecting 13.8 million Americans. Consistent research over the years has not yielded much potential. Not so with the recent vaccine developed against the disease by researchers at University of New Mexico, led by Indian American Kiran Bhaskar, for this project shows promising results. 

The associate professor at UNM’s Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology said the idea germinated back in 2013 and it took five whole years for the vaccine to become a reality. The team does not want to get ahead of themselves and declare this experiment a success without testing on human beings and getting approval from the Food and Drugs Association (FDA). But for now it represents hope to people with degenerating cognitive abilities to the point of not being able to function independently.

In the paper published in NPJ Vaccines earlier this month, the researchers detailed how they developed the vaccine that generates antibodies to target the tau tangles in the brains of mice. Tau is a protein that assembles in the brain and forms tangled structures in human beings. This vaccine was built using virus like particles (VLP) that released antibodies for months after being consumed by mice.

The result proved cognitive function was partly restored in the brain miraculously. When the mice fed the vaccine were put in maze like test scenarios, they fared better than mice who had not received treatment.

Alzheimer's patients wait to be seen by a healthcare professional. Patients with Alzheimer's and dementia sit inside the Alzheimer foundation in Mexico City, April 19, 2012. Reuters

“We’re excited by these findings, because they seem to suggest that we can use the body’s own immune system to make antibodies against these tangles, and that these antibodies actually bind and clear these tau tangles,” said Ph.D. student Nicole Maphis at UNM’s Biomedical Sciences department in a press release.

Once the brain’s nerve cells die, the brain decreases in size. Maphis studied the MRI scans and noted that the brains of the vaccinated mice had not shrunk. She also found the tangles in the cortex and hippocampus had reduced in number. This is a significant finding because both these areas of the brain become dysfunctional in the throes of Alzeihmer’s.

“These results confirm that targeting tau tangles using a vaccine intervention could rescue memory impairments and prevent neurons from dying,” Maphis said. In order to commercialise the vaccine and introduce it in the pharmaceutical market, it could take years and millions of dollars, the researchers opined.

One of the first steps toward achieving this goal is the partnership with the company specializing in commercializing VLP technology, AgilVax, Inc. and UNM’s tech marketing arm. The researchers want to secure funding in the form of a grant from research and federal agencies, as experiments with even small groups can cost up to $2 million.