British scientists have revealed that a major breakthrough in the fight against Alzheimer’s could lead to a raft of new treatments that prevent the deadly process from happening.
Researchers in Cambridge extracted tissue samples from a patient who died of the disease and deciphered its molecular structure. Until now research has depended on artificial samples but by introducing the use of real tissue, scientists have been able to see the make-up of a destructive protein called tau, which forms tangles in the brains of sufferers, in microscopic detail.
Until now, the high-resolution structures of tau or any other disease-causing filaments from human brain tissue have remained unknown. Therefore, this new work will help to develop better compounds for diagnosing and treating Alzheimer’s.
Tau protein normally helps brain cells function, but in Alzheimer’s it clumps together and then spreads through the brain as the symptoms of the disease progress. However, the scientists were able to deduce the atomic arrangement inside tau and made it possible for computer models to measure millions of potential drug molecules against the protein, giving immediate clues to suggest which should be tested further, significantly speeding up the drug discovery process.
A spokesman for the Alzheimer’s Society said that tau protein has never been seen in this level of detail before. Many drugs work like a key in a lock, and this discovery shows scientists the inner workings of the tau protein ‘lock’. He added that the ability to picture what the lock looks like could help scientists design more precise drugs that act on the tau protein and stop damage to the brain.
The breakthrough comes as a new study suggests that more than 1.2 million people in England and Wales will have dementia by 2040, a 57 per cent increase on 2016, placing ‘unsustainable strain on the NHS, families and society as a whole.