• Alzheimer’s disease currently affects around 342,800 Australians and up to 70 per cent of all people with dementia. (Flickr)Source: Flickr
Could a cancer drug used to heal the brains of mice with Alzheimer’s disease ever be used in humans with dementia?
Yasmin Noone

20 Jan 2016 - 12:52 PM  UPDATED 20 Jan 2016 - 12:53 PM

A new type of drug that encourages the immune system to attack cancer inside the body has been used to improve the memory of mice with Alzheimer’s disease in a new international study.

Recent findings from animal tests conducted in Israel show that one single drug might be able to help humans battle cancer and fight Alzheimer’s disease at the same time.

The research, published online in the journal Nature Medicine this week, found that a specific class of cancer medications called ‘Programmed death-1 (PD-1) blockers’ successfully blocked an immune system 'checkpoint’ in vermin.

This checkpoint blockage went on to help activate a set of immune cells, which fought cancer, and restored learning and memory in the brains of mice damaged by Alzheimer’s disease.

“Repeated treatment sessions were required to maintain a long-lasting beneficial effect…” the study paper states.

But, the research states, “these findings suggest that immune checkpoints may be targeted therapeutically in Alzheimer’s disease”.

The researchers behind this study believe that the results could assist in finding a cure for other neurodegenerative conditions, as well as Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

Dementia is currently the second leading cause of death in Australia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form.

Alzheimer’s disease currently affects around 342,800 Australians and up to 70 per cent of all people with dementia. The condition damages the brain and results in impaired memory, thinking and behaviour.

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Alzheimer’s Australia CEO, Carol Bennett, has welcomed the new findings but said the research should be treated with sense of cautious optimism.

“We all want to hope for a cure but I think it is important to understand this particular trial is taking place in mice at the moment,” says Ms Bennett.  

“While it has recently been approved by the American Food and Drug Administration, it will be some time before it progresses to human trials and then, depending on results, is available for use in humans.

“Alzheimer’s disease is a complicated condition, with many different stages that manifest differently from person-to-person.

“There is no one size fits all to treatment, prevention or cure.”

Ms Bennett adds that until further results are released and trials are conducted in humans, “it would difficult to know the full effect of this type of treatment”.

“It will be interesting to see the results from further studies, but like many such studies it will likely herald better results in early-to-mild Alzheimer’s disease, because there is less damage to the brain.”

She says research into the causes and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is progressing positively, both in Australia and around the world.

“There are a lot of people looking to medicine and science for hope.”

“But it's complex and will take some time, which is why it is important we all do what we can to reduce our risk of heart disease and stroke by not smoking, eating a well-balanced diet, exercising, socialising and keep our brains active by constantly learning new things.”

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The biggest risk factor for having Alzheimer’s disease is increasing age, with one-in-four people over 85 having dementia. However, sporadic Alzheimer’s disease can affect anyone of any age and familial Alzheimer’s disease – a very rare genetic condition – has a typical age of onset of less than 65 years.

Early diagnosis is vital to halt the progression of the disease and improve management of symptoms and improve the quality of life for the person living with dementia.

“Even people with a diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can continue to live well and maintain a good quality of life, in their communities for as long as possible.”


For more information about dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, a specific study, trial or drug, call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.


Image by Kalvicio de las Nieves (Flickr).