More than 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease at a cost of nearly $200 billion a year, but a researcher at The University of Toledo may have created a drug to help.For the past eight years, Dr. Kenneth Hensley, associate professor in the UT Department of Pathology, has been working with a drug called LKE. The experimental therapeutic drug mimics a natural chemical found in the body that he believes protects the brain and its neurons.
“We hope that by understanding how the natural and synthetic molecule works, we can gain insight into the biological base for Alzheimer’s disease, and also develop improved drugs that can safely and cost-effectively slow this disease,” Hensley said.
After patenting the drug in 2010, Hensley began working with Dr. Marni Harris-White, a researcher at the Veteran’s Administration of Greater Los Angeles Healthcare Center and the University of California at Los Angeles. Harris-White began testing LKE on genetically altered mice to determine its effects on Alzheimer’s disease, and the results have been astonishing.
The mice were altered to show the same pathological signs as humans with Alzheimer’s disease — two types of toxic clumps called amyloid and tau. The drug seemed to improve all of the pathology associated with the disease and slow the loss of memory.
“Usually you’ll see changes in one of the pathological features,” Harris-White said. “These mice had amyloid deposition and tau pathology in addition to the memory impairments. We were able to assess changes in all of those parameters — that’s pretty unusual for a single drug to be able to do that.”
Even more stunning to researchers is that not only did this drug seem to reduce the pathological indicators of the disease, but it seemed to have no adverse side effects in the mice. In fact, mice on the drug displayed better weight retention and improved motor function compared to the control group of mice that were not administered the drug.
“It’s very unusual for an experimental therapeutic drug not only to be well-tolerated, but also for the animals to appear to be in generally better health on that drug,” Hensley said. “Usually you expect a trade-off.”
Because LKE is still in pre-clinical trials, it will be some time before there will be the possibility of testing on humans. The results researchers have seen so far must be replicated, and the drug must be optimized to be sure that it is cost-effective, able to be taken in pill form, and safe.
“Some people think it’s not possible to treat this disease at a price that would be feasible to society, but I disagree,” Hensley said. “My colleagues and I have been working specifically to develop small molecules that are safe and can be manufactured at a low cost.”
Hensley and Harris-White presented their findings recently at a meeting for the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. They will continue their work in the coming years and hope to get other researchers involved in the testing process.