There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease yet and current treatments have many limitations when it comes to their effect. However, findings by some researchers show that existing HIV drugs may offer revolutionary means of treating this condition.
Alzheimer’s disease has a very significant impact on the healthcare system in the United States and until now it has been difficult to deal with it as no cure has been discovered until now.
It is believed that there are around 5.7 million people living with this disorder in America currently. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of those affected will double by the year 2060.
The high cost of treating this disorder is set to rise even higher. It was estimated that up to about $226 billion was spent on Alzheimer’s disease treatment 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.
They discovered 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 this brain disorder.
Revealing the underlying cause
Researchers have been working for many years to determine 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 which is the role of this protein exactly, but they have observed the relationship between mutations of the gene and the risk of this brain disorder. These mutations are capable of leading to early-onset of Alzheimer’s.
Brain samples of people with Alzheimer’s and those who didn’t have the disorder were compared in the current research. Using the 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 show 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 of 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 the treatment of people with HIV may also be beneficial for Alzheimer’s. These are specific 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 the reason for repeated failures of clinical trials targeted at coming up with a potent treatment. The focus has almost entirely been on tackling the toxic buildup of beta-amyloid proteins.
Dr. Chun and his colleagues said that more work is needed though. They plan to examine genetic recombination in more brains.