Researchers at the University of Cambridge say they have figured out what triggers the runaway formation of proteins associated with neurological disorders like Alzheimer's, and that their finding paves the way for drugs that can stop the process.
The discovery advances the work of Cambridge professor Christopher Dobson, whose team 15 years ago connected the "misfolding" of brain proteins to Alzheimer's disease. Misfolding causes proteins to clump together, malfunction and eventually destroy neurons.
The new work "shows that once a small but critical level of malfunctioning protein 'clumps' have formed, a runaway chain reaction is triggered that multiplies exponentially the number of these protein composites," Cambridge said in a press release.
Researchers hope that drugs can stop the chain reaction in its tracks, preventing the clusters - called oligomers - and snuffing out the disease.
"We've now established the pathway that shows how the toxic species that cause cell death, the oligomers, are formed," Cambridge's Dr. Tuomas Knowles said in the release. "This is the key pathway to detect, target and intervene - the molecular catalyst that underlies the pathology." The release also noted that:
"The breakthrough is a vital step closer to increased capabilities for earlier diagnosis of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and opens up possibilities for a new generation of targeted drugs, as scientists say they have uncovered the earliest stages of the development of Alzheimer’s that drugs could possibly target."
Alzheimer's, besides its human tribulations, has enormous financial ramifications. It cost the U.K. economy £23 billion ($35 billion) in 2010, Cambridge says.
The research team, led by Knowles, is expected to report its findings through the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, part of the Washington, D.C.-based National Academy of Sciences.
Image from Dr. Tuomas Knowles, University of Cambridge
Note: Cambridge posted its press release online a day after this story first appeared. I added a link to the release on May 21 around 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time.--MH