MANATEE -- It's just one of scores of molecules that talk to each other in the human brain, helping make the brain one of the most complex and efficient structures in the universe.
But scientists at the Roskamp Institute in Manatee/Sarasota have honed in on one of these "intelligent" molecules called the SYK protein and discovered that, along with its other roles in the brain, it involves itself in three of the main problems that cause Alzheimer's disease.
"This molecule was known before," medical genetics scientist Dr. Fiona Crawford, of the Roskamp Institute, said Tuesday. "But it wasn't known that it was involved in inflammation, accumulation of amyloid protein, and modulation of the 'tau' protein -- all of which are responsible for damage to the brain's nerve cells."
When word got out Tuesday of Roskamp's discovery about the SYK protein,
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the phone at the nonprofit biomedical research facility, which specializes in Alzheimer's research, started ringing.
The discovery could mean a cure for Alzheimer's is on the horizon, Crawford added.
"Absolutely, this could lead to a cure," Crawford said. "Now, we need lots of people exploring. What is exciting here is that in contrast to previous approaches that target one symptom, this tackles all three. We hope that other scientists out there will now say to themselves, 'I wonder if I have something in my toolbox that can hit that therapeutic target and be safe.'"
The finding is the result of more than 10 years of work by more than a dozen scientists and clinicians on the research team here. Alzheimer's has been the subject of intensive research for more than 20 years.
"We've been working on this a long time, but we just submitted the data at the end of August," said Crawford, referring to a paper published Oct. 20 in the online edition of the Journal of Biological Chemistry (www.jbc.org).
The full study is set to be published in the December edition of Journal of Biological Chemistry.
"These studies suggest there is a single drug target to inhibit all the three key pathologies of Alzheimer's disease," says neurobiologist Daniel Paris, lead researcher for the study.
The discovery stemmed from work at Roskamp with a drug called Nilvadipine that is used to treat high blood pressure in Europe and Japan, Crawford said.
In working out how the drug works to reduce amyloid protein accumulations, Roskamp researchers realized the drug also had positive effects on neuroinflammation and the tau protein. The scientists retraced the molecular steps leading to these three factors and discovered they all led back to the SYK protein.
Paris then went on to show that drugs blocking SYK activity in the brain could represent a new strategy for treating Alzheimer's.
Alzheimer's is the most prevalent form of dementia in the elderly. Currently, the disease affects 5.2 million Americans, or 1 in 9 adults over the age of 65.
"Our studies have revealed that the spleen tyrosine kinase (SYK) enzyme is at a crossroad from which all three of the brain abnormalities known to be associated with Alzheimer's disease diverge," said Dr. Michael Mullan, senior author of the study. "Hopefully, academic or industry researchers can now develop new drugs to inhibit SYK which are suitable for clinical trials in Alzheimer's disease."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.