Close-up of a mouse's face.
Immune system cancer drug Bexarotene has been shown to cure Alzheimer's disease in mice. (Photo Credit: CC BY/Dawn Huczek/Flickr)

Neuroscientists at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio have made what they call an amazing advance in the battle against Alzheimer’s disease. Agence France-Presse reports that mice bred to have Alzheimer’s, when treated with the immune system cancer drug bexarotene, became measurably smarter within hours as brain plaque dissolved. Study findings were published in the recent edition of the journal Science.

Amazing advancement against Alzheimer’s

Lead Case Western researcher Dr. Gary Landreth told AFP that the observed reaction of the study mice to bexarotene was both “shocking and amazing.”

“Things like this had never, ever been seen before,” he said.

Bexarotene, which is used to treat cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, triggers a kind of “garbage disposal” response in the brain, notes Landreth. It boosts levels of the protein Apolipoprotein E (ApoE), which clears amyloid plaque from the brain. Not coincidentally, Alzheimer’s disease patients show high concentration of this plaque.

“When we are young and healthy, all of us can basically get rid of this (amyloid) and degrade it and grind it into small bits and it gets cleared,” said Landreth. “Many of us will be unable to do this as efficiently as we age. And this is associated with mental decline or cognitive impairment.”

Dementia like Alzheimer’s disease afflicts 35.6 million people globally, a total that Alzheimer’s Disease International projects will double by 2030. The annual cost of dementia treatment exceeds $604 billion.

Mice scurry toward recovery

Within six hours of the time the mice received the immune system cancer drug, which works through the liver to boost retinoid X receptors, soluble amyloid levels decreased by 25 percent. Mice subjects performed better on tests involving memory, they became more social and re-developed sense of smell, which is commonly lost by Alzheimer’s patients.

Within a few more hours, amyloid levels had decreased by 75 percent. Effects of the drug continued for up to three days, according to study findings.

More on Bexarotene

Bexarotene was made by U.S.-based Ligand Pharmaceuticals under the brand name Targretin, reports AFP. The Food and Drug Administration approved it in 1999 as a treatment for an immune system cancer that manifests through the skin and liver. The drug’s safety history is good, although pregnant women are advised not to use it because of the possibility of fetal defects. Common side effects include diarrhea, dizziness, nausea, dry skin and sleep disruption.

By 2006, Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai bought worldwide rights to Bexarotene, and the drug is no available in 26 countries in Europe, North America and South America.

Human trials needed

Dr. Scott Turner, neurologist and director of Georgetown University Medical Center’s Memory Disorders Program, is excited about the implications of the Bexarotene study. However, he cautioned that more study is needed before it can be said that the drug will work with human Alzheimer’s disease patients.

“One obstacle is that the mice may not be a good model of Alzheimer’s disease,” he said. “Does this drug work in human beings as it does in mice? Does it get into the brain? And does it have an effect on amyloid levels and increase ApoE levels? We need to do that in normal human beings and see if humans are like mice.”

Cancer drug shows hope for Alzheimer’s


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