Alzheimer’s disease does not yet have a known cure and there is a limit to what current treatments can do. However, findings by some researchers show that existing HIV drugs may offer revolutionary means of treating the unpleasant disorder.
Alzheimer’s disease has proven a tough nut to crack for medical professionals with no cure available. It also has a very significant impact on the healthcare system in the United States.
It is believed that there are around 5.7 million people living with the disorder in America at present. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the disease burden will double by the year 2060.
The implication of this is that the already high cost of treating the disorder is set to rise even higher. It was estimated that up to about $226 billion was spent on treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia in 2015.
That figure did not take into consideration billions of hours spent by family members and friends taking care of patients without pay.
Researchers at the Sanford Burnham Presbys Medical Discovery Institute have reported what could be a major breakthrough in the search for an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s. They reported findings from their new study in Nature.
It was found that an enzyme that plays a role in HIV infections is also involved in the development of Alzheimer’s. This means that existing antiretroviral medications may help control the brain disorder.
Revealing the underlying cause
Researchers have been working for many years to unravel the cause of Alzheimer’s disease. This is a very important step in knowing how to address it.
A major factor that is believed to play a role in its development is what researchers call the APP gene. This DNA subunit encodes amyloid precursor protein present in tissues and organs of the body, including the brain and spinal cord.
Scientists do not know exactly the role of this protein, but they have observed relationship between mutations of the gene and the risk of the brain disorder. These mutations are capable of leading to early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Brain samples of people with Alzheimer’s and those who didn’t have the disorder were compared in the current research. Using latest technology, the scientists observed that a type of enzyme that makes it possible for HIV to infect cells mix and match with genes in the brain, including the APP gene, in the course of a patient’s life.
The enzyme in question is reverse transcriptase. It contributes to reverse transcription as well as “reinsertion of the genetic variants back into the original genome.” The result is lasting DNA changes.
The genetic recombination between the enzyme and gene leads to numerous genetic mutations as seen in people with Alzheimer’s.
The brain samples of all subjects with Alzheimer’s in this study showed very high, diverse APP genetic variations, compared to people without the condition.
The mix and matching observed clearly shows how the APP gene can cause a dangerous rise in the amounts of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain of people with Alzheimer’s. The findings significantly improve existing knowledge on how the disorder develops.
Enlisting HIV drugs
What arguably makes the findings from the new study more exciting is that it means existing drugs for treatment of people with HIV may also be beneficial for Alzheimer’s. These are specifically medications that help block reverse transcriptase.
“Our findings provide a scientific rationale for immediate clinical evaluation of HIV antiretroviral therapies in people with Alzheimer’s,” said Dr. Jerold Chun, lead author and senior vice president at SBP’s Neuroscience Drug Discovery.
To somewhat corroborate their findings, the researchers noted that elderly people who use antiretroviral drugs have been found to be less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
Findings from this new study may also explain reason for repeated failures of clinical trials targeted at coming up with a potent treatment. Focus has almost entirely been on tackling toxic buildup of beta-amyloid proteins.
Dr. Chun and his colleagues said there was still need for more work, however. They plan to examine genetic recombination in more brains.