September 1st, 2010
05:34 PM ET

Cancer drug may offer clue to Alzheimer's cure

Treatments modeled on the blockbuster cancer drug Gleevec may be the key to finding a cure for Alzheimer's, suggest new data reported in the journal Nature.

Scientists theorize that a protein that accumulates in the brain, called beta-amyloid, develops plaque that weakens certain nerve cells, causing them to die. This creates the breakdown of cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients. The key for scientists is to find a way to eliminate this plaque. Although there are drugs on the market that work at ridding the brain of beta-amyloid, the treatments can also destroy healthy brain cells in the process.

So how do you create this delicate balance? New research from the laboratory of Nobel Prize-winner Paul Greengard, suggests that treatments modeled on Gleevec, a drug used in leukemia and gastrointestinal cancers, could be the solution. It turns out that when scientists modified Gleevec, it had the ability to bind to a protein that triggers the production of beta-amyloid plaques.

The new research shows that this protein, called gamma-secretase activating protein, dramatically increases the production of a specific beta-amyloid peptide, which makes up the plaques found in the brains of most people with Alzheimer's. By altering and reducing this protein, the production of plaques could be reduced. Biochemical studies showed that Gleevec reduces beta-amyloid production when it binds to GSAP.

"Alzheimer's disease is a devastating disorder for which there are no satisfactory treatments," says Greengard, Vincent Astor professor and director of the Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research at Rockefeller. "Our findings reveal that gamma-secretase activating protein is a potential target for a new class of anti-amyloid therapies."

At this point, research on the drug modification has been done only in the lab or on mice, not in humans. And although the  result seems promising, it is only the beginning.

"We need to give it the attention it deserves. There are a number of hurdles this treatment will have to go through in order to make it effective in humans, " says Dr. William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer's Association. "Because they've found it works in mice, is interesting, but people aren't mice. They're more complex and they (researchers) are going to have to come up with different methods, develop different forms of the drug, in order for it to work in humans. That could take a very long time."

Some estimate that it could be 15 to 20 years, because a major problem facing the treatment at this point is the Gleevec molecule does not cross the blood-brain barrier, which prevents some substances in the blood from entering the brain. Greengard, however, believes that it will be possible to design drugs that target GSAP but do not have that limitation.

"Anti-amyloid therapeutic drugs represent a valid approach to treating Alzheimer's disease, but their inability to accumulate in the brain has limited their usefulness," says Greengard, "The development of compounds that work like Gleevec, but have the ability to pass the blood-brain barrier and target GSAP could revolutionize the treatment of this disease."

When asked if he thought this might be the link that could lead to the cure for Alzheimer's, Greengard responded, "I am very excited about that possibility. That's what we betting the farm on. "

According to the Alzheimer's Association, 5.3 million people suffer from Alzheimer's disease. It's the seventh-leading cause of death and rising, as baby boomers move into their golden years.

soundoff (53 Responses)
  1. Kent Karosen

    We at the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation are very proud to have funded this tremendous new finding of Dr. Paul Greengard. For the past 15 years, we have been proud to support the good work of Dr. Greengard and his internationally renowned team of scientists at The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research. We would like to specifically congratulate Drs. He and Greengard for discovering this important protein. Their latest research is a potential paradigm shift in how scientists and doctors around the world will attack Alzheimer’s.
    Kent L. Karosen, President and CEO
    Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation

    September 1, 2010 at 17:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Raven

      Thank you for funding this project. As a potential victim of this horrible disease, I appreciate all the researchers and the people who fund studies to find a cure.

      September 1, 2010 at 19:54 | Report abuse |
    • Stephen Messenger

      Having lost an Uncle and my father-in-law to Alzheimer's disease, I know the heart-ache of watching a loved one die from this terrible disease. May God bless you for this wonderful discovery! Great news!

      September 1, 2010 at 20:44 | Report abuse |
    • LaDonna Snow

      Every day I pray for a cure, or at least a better option to stave off the disease. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's 2 years ago at the age of 69. The disease is not only devastating to her, but to the entire family and her friends. I panic now every time that I cannot pull a word or thought from memory. I hope in 20 years when I am her age there are better options for treatment. Thank you for the research and funding to battle this horrible disease.

      September 2, 2010 at 00:35 | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Good luck, frankly the BBB is only ONE barrier to this.
      I'd suggest locating the binding locations on the existing drug and attempting to place a tag for dendritic cells to attack.
      The resulting molecule MIGHT be able to pass through the BBB.
      Unfortunately, any way you slice it, we're looking at 10-20 years before a drug could possibly be released.
      But, the journey of a thousand miles is started by a single step.

      September 2, 2010 at 08:52 | Report abuse |
    • Steveorevo

      Unfortunately there have been many studies that show the halting or removal of the plaques does nothing to stop the symptoms of Alzheimer. Rather, its been found that the plaque is simply a side effect and its the prions that are the root cause. The plaques are a defense mechanism. Eliminating the plaques in other research has shown no effect on the disease. Granted, all avenues need research and funding, hopefully a cure will come about in the near future.

      September 2, 2010 at 09:13 | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      This post is a self-congratulatory marketing tool... makes me sick. How about find the cause for Alzheimer's before you come on here patting yourselves on the back.

      September 2, 2010 at 09:53 | Report abuse |
    • Chance2

      Thank you for assisting in this research. I just lost my father (6/21/2010) to this horrible disease and would like to see some significant advancements made so that no other individual would have to suffer the indignities that this disease brings.

      September 2, 2010 at 09:59 | Report abuse |
    • DDay

      Hopefully, the cost of this cure will not replicate the current price of Gleevec – $52,000 per year. Novartis was charging $32,000 five years ago for Gleevec, then $42,000 and recently $52,000. Their pricing policy is based upon the fact you have a terminal disease " how much will you pay for your life?". The development of the drug received contributions before being hijacked by Wall Street bankers – insiders have said the cost of Gleevec is a fraction of the price charged. Hopefully, ambulances won't figure this out or else your ride to the hospital could be based on how much you're willing to pay to save your life.

      September 2, 2010 at 19:25 | Report abuse |
  2. Chris Menard

    There was a most unexpected discovery regarding Alheimer's Disease and vitamin D in July 2009...

    "Using blood samples from nine Alzheimer's patients, one patient with mild cognitive impairment and three healthy control subjects, scientists isolated monocyte cells, which transform into macrophages that act as the immune system's clean-up crew, traveling through the brain and body and gobbling up waste products, including amyloid beta. Researchers incubated the macrophages with amyloid beta, vitamin D3 and natural or synthetic curcumin."

    "The team discovered that curcuminoids enhanced the surface binding of amyloid beta to macrophages and that vitamin D strongly stimulated the uptake and absorption of amyloid beta in macrophages in a majority of patients"

    Research link:

    "Vitamin D, Curcumin May Help Clear Amyloid Plaques Found In Alzheimer's Disease"


    September 1, 2010 at 21:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Guest

      Except for the dozens of articles before and after that one that show people takind VitD supplements still get AD and that VitD and VitE don't slow or prevent the onset of AD.

      Petri dishes are not humans.

      September 2, 2010 at 07:46 | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Pigeon pellets!
      Monocytes don't cross an intact blood brain barrier. One either needs to open the BBB or it needs inflammation to be present, such as autoimmune or infection.
      Dendritic cells perform many of the functions of immune function. Were monocytes or any other white cell permitted to rampage around the brain compartment, all manner of illness would occur, as in many cases where they have due to leakage of the BBB. The brain is a specialized tissue, hence has immune privilege. Whenever that breaks down, healthy tissue destruction is rampant.
      Kindly learn about what you wish to report BEFORE you place false hope before people. The disease is horrible enough without charlatans exacerbating the pain experienced by the victims and their families of this horrific disease.

      September 2, 2010 at 08:49 | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      Oxygenate the Body, kill the plaque – H2O2!

      September 2, 2010 at 09:11 | Report abuse |
    • CLS

      Those "other" studies never achived a serum vitamin D level of at least 50 ng/ml, 25 OH D.

      That is the problem with all vitamin D research- they use tiny amounts of it and get mixed results. Unfortunately the drug companies have a hand in limiting the effects because they know it will result in the elmination of many, if not most of their drugs.

      Repletion levels of vitamin D, at or above the 50-80 ng/ml, 25 OH D, range are necessary for full benefit. Until that range is studied closely the facts will remain undetermined.

      Comparing vitamin D and vitamin E is to compare an aircraft carrier to a bottle of aspirin.

      September 2, 2010 at 10:32 | Report abuse |
    • Guest

      To Wzrd1:

      The study which was cited by Chris Menard was based on previous observations by clinicians in India who observed that in certain areas of that country there is little or no AD present. Some bright individual noticed that something present seemed to prevent the development of AD in the indigenous population. There can be little doubt that something is going on there and after much investigation it was suspected that turmeric, the spice used in curry, was a key player. Couple that with high levels of circulating vitamin D and they felt they were on to something.

      Vitamin D is a steroid hormone. All steroids reduce inflammation. Vitamin D is by far the human body's most powerful steroid hence the suspected connection to AD.

      Perhaps AD is the latent phase of a retrovirus? If so vitamin D is essential because of its antiviral properties. While human flu and cold viruses are not necessarily retroviruses vitamin D's effect, and preventative power over this type of infection, is well established, whether you are aware or not.

      Vitamin D deficiency is the world's greatest health crisis unquestionably. Current levels of sufficiency, around 30 ng/ml, 25 OH D, are clearly inadequate and do not come close to the healthy, natural range of 50-80 ng/ml, 25 OH D. Because of this misunderstanding hundreds of millions are at serious risk of a host of early onset diseases.

      September 2, 2010 at 10:44 | Report abuse |
  3. Virginia

    My mother was a 2nd grade teacher her whole life until she developed early onset AZ at age 60. Now 9 years later, she has lost all cognitive abilities and cannot even write or state her own name. We continue to grieve her loss although she is physically still with us. May God bless you in your work. God speed.

    September 2, 2010 at 00:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. nursegillian

    It sounds like this drug has serious and potentially fatal side effects and couldn't be taken for long periods of time. Hopefully research continues for a safer drug to prevent or breakdown beta amyloid. I see the potential for something much safer than this drug to at least prevent Alzheimer's.

    September 2, 2010 at 00:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Wzrd1

      The existing drug would be dangerous and useless for treating this disease, it's a chemotherapy drug.
      That said, locating the part of the existing drug molecule that binds to the beta-amyloid and finding a way to get that portion and some active portion through the blood brain barrier COULD result in a workable treatment.

      September 2, 2010 at 08:56 | Report abuse |
    • nursegillian

      Wzrd1, thanks for stating the obvious. I'll try to be less cryptic for you. I'm saying they are going full force for this chemo drug "betting the farm" as the researcher said because it is a drug that is already in existance and they are seeing dollar signs not necessairly what is best for people. I know there will be a safer much cheaper drug than this to combat Alzheimer's that is molecularly small enough to cross the blood brain barrier and break the bonds of the plaque. It seems to me the best drug for Alzheimer's is going to be a preventative one because once the plaques form in the brain, the brain damage is already occuring. I do think there will be a benefit to breakdown the plaque after the disease is in full force, but never having amyloid plaque deposits in the brian in the first place is more desireable, just as having less brain damage is more desireable, and what genetically predisposed patients that don't have the disease YET are looking for. People whose parents have suffered and want to prevent this devastating disease in themselves don't want to take a medication that IS going to have a mortality risk. Now if you or your loved one are currently suffering from Alz then try anything, chemo drug, whatever, but researchers could be just as close to finding a better, safer, treatment for a much larger Alz population. I hope they don't put that pursuit on the back burner.

      September 2, 2010 at 11:45 | Report abuse |
  5. Ed

    There are drugs that can remove the amyloids, but they make the symptoms worse, not better. The current understanding is that the amyloids are a response to something (possibly an inflamation reaction) that is designed to protect the brain. Those amyloids are not the cause, they are the brains response to protect itself.

    September 2, 2010 at 00:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. norm

    The drug, experimental, Bap for short, DOES remove plaques from the brain and free up nuerons (verified by autopsy in Phase II) . However, my wife took part in an ongoing study and it really had, in her casre, so,e rather major and nasty side effects. Result? She is still in the lockdown wing of an Alzheimer's unit but seems to be having reactions on the positive? side. l can only hope.

    September 2, 2010 at 01:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. A.Neil

    I hope they find a cure one day. Both my Dad (Lewy Body Dementia), and my Grandpa died from this terrible disease. Both were brilliant men.
    Thank for all your work.
    God Bless

    September 2, 2010 at 01:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Melissa

    Alzheimer's is the reason I'm currently in school for my PhD in Pharmacy. My goal is to someday help in the finding of a cure for it. This news is exciting and hopefully a step in the right direction!

    September 2, 2010 at 01:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Brandon

    WE NEED TO LEGALIZE CANNABIS. Cannabinoids have been proven to kill cancer cells and act as powerful neuroprotectants in the brain to offset the effects of Alzheimer's in pre-clinical studies. If we legalize cannabis it'll be much easier for scientists to conduct more research on cannabis. Cannabinoids are very promising because they are very NON-toxic and won't kill or harm normal cells while treating people for cancers. Here's the link to Prop 19's website for more information on legalizing cannabis. http://yeson19.com/node/97

    September 2, 2010 at 05:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • lmao

      i'm literally loling. you weed legalizers need a new cause. it's not the freaking fountain of youth.

      September 2, 2010 at 09:36 | Report abuse |
    • lololol

      stupid pro-marijuana post

      September 3, 2010 at 08:51 | Report abuse |
  10. Ann

    My 88 year old father has been taking Gleevec for about 7 years ( almost as long as it has been available) for Leukemia. THANK GOD for the Medicare drug program because of the cost of this medicine, but it doesn't have to be that expensive, it is routinely produced in India for less than 1/10th of the price. He has very little cognitive impairment, and futhermore his skin is soft and relatively wrinkle free. It absolutely amazes me that the medical profession is not monitoring people who take Gleevec for potential insight into how it works long term. What a waste! We "Boomers" can't wait 15 or 20 years to deal with Alzheimers. My 86 year old mother has severe Alzheimers and is in an assisted living home. Alzheimers is the ONLY medical issue that she has, no diabetes, no high blood pressure, no heart disease, etc. COME ON let's step up to the plate and demand a prevention and cure for Alzheimers! This is more important than going to Mars! How about reducing American presence ( and costs) around the world, and put our tax dollars into medical research?

    September 2, 2010 at 08:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joe

      You're pouncing on scientific research of Mars? How about all the money spent in Iraq and Afghanistan? Hello.

      September 2, 2010 at 09:51 | Report abuse |
    • JeramieH

      Going to Mars is purely an engineering issue on known science, not one that requires new science discoveries like medical research. You just can't crank out science discoveries like the turn of a wheel.

      September 2, 2010 at 11:38 | Report abuse |
  11. Rob

    This research sounds promising and gives me hope. My great Aunt Vera and Grandfather suffered with Alzheimer's for years and I've been witness to it's effects since I was 10-12 years old. My father has Alzheimer's also and has deteriorated significantly over the last 10 years. My brother, sister and I have had a hard road to hoe with my Mother's death from heart disease the week of Mother's Day this year and the not surprising recent diagnosis of Alzheimer's with my father. I wish the researchers the best of luck and hope that if my siblings or I have this in our future they have a treatment for us before our time with this horrible affliction arrives!

    September 2, 2010 at 08:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Emily

    My sisters and I are also potential victims of this horrible disease. Our mother was a very brilliant and tallented woman until she was diagnosed with dementia in her early 70's. She worked in the public eye for years and was a social butterfly. Now almost 8 years later she has lost all cognitive abilities, can't speak, can't walk, can't eat solid foods or feed herself. She is with us physically (in a nursing home) but at the same time we grieve her loss. I lost an uncle last year to this dreaded disease. My sisters and I fear which of us will develop this terrible disease. Like one other person mentioned. We panic every time we forget something. We thank you for all your work!

    September 2, 2010 at 08:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Matt Kalaycio

    Another drug that works much like imatinib (Gleevec) is dasatinib (Sprycel). In fact, a recent study suggested that dasatinib was superior to imatinib in the treatment of chronic leukemia. Most important for this Alzheimer's research, though, is the fact that dasatinib crosses the BBB barrier! So, it is possible to overcome that particular hurdle.

    September 2, 2010 at 09:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Lydia

    There is no AD in my family, but heart disease seems to be the thing that does exist through the generations. I am still hoping for a cure for AD for all families who may be genetically predisposed. My question is whether they have done studies to find out the background habits of these patients. Were they smokers, drinkers, users of drugs–legal and otherwise? What kind of work did they do in their productive years? What might they have been exposed to, since there is so much pollution in our lives? These people did not live secluded lives, where they lived could be as important as how they lived and with whom.

    September 2, 2010 at 09:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Squeezebox

    My father developed pre-senile dementia. At the age of 50, he had the brain of a 100 year old man. He died 8 years later. This happened at the onset of my teenage years. I felt like somebody stole my real father and replaced him with a chimpanzee! The sooner we stop this killer of minds, the better!

    September 2, 2010 at 11:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. BobDeMarco

    The Alzheimers Reading Room has clear, concise, usable news, research, insight and advice for the entire Alzheimers community.

    The website focuses on those suffering from Alzheimers disease and Dementia, Alzheimers caregivers, and the art of Alzheimers caregiving.

    100 Million people have been touched by Alzheimer's disease, and 35 million are worried about Alzheimer's.


    September 2, 2010 at 13:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Ann

    Aspartame (NutraSweet/Equal) is correlated with increased risks of cancer. Before you or your kids drink another Diet Soda, make sure you do not want cancer for you or your kids. New Rat Study Links Artificial Sweetener with Lymphomas, Breast Cancer

    June 25, 2007

    WASHINGTON—A new long-term animal test from an Italian cancer institute raises serious safety questions about the artificial sweetener aspartame, which is marketed generically as well as under the NutraSweet and Equal brand names. A dozen toxicology and epidemiology experts and the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest are calling on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to immediately review the study, which found increases in lymphomas, leukemias, and breast cancers in rats.

    September 5, 2010 at 00:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. M Rani

    Make sure that you do not end up with a cancer, while treating Alzheimer with modification of cancer drug -Gleevac. Incidently, cancer is uncommon in those who get Diabetes or Alzheimer (Diabetes is regarded as a predictor of Alzheimer).

    September 7, 2010 at 05:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Isabel

    Interesting research. I hope that discover soon the drug that help the problem of Alzheimer. I like to know what mean GSAP?

    September 7, 2010 at 22:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. toddsaed

    try everything, studies about lack of sunshine? after eighty five fifty percent get AD,

    February 10, 2012 at 21:33 | Report abuse | Reply
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