News Feature | April 14, 2014

Has Alzheimer's Research Been Focused On Wrong Protein?

By Marcus Johnson

Claude Wischik, a chair in mental health at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, believes that 20 years of Alzheimer’s research has been focused on the wrong protein. In the research field, scientists have been primarily focused on the beta amyloid protein. Discovered by Alois Alzheimer in 1906, many researchers have come to believe the disease is caused by a build-up of beta amyloid on the brain. There have been more than 100 drugs developed to target this particular protein, however all of these drugs have failed. While this failure could be attributed to several factors, including the quality of the drug or the timeliness in which it was delivered, there is also speculation that these drugs could simply be failing because they’re focused on the wrong protein.

Wischek says, “It’s extraordinary that in the face of these failed trials, the claims for amyloid remain exactly the same as though there haven’t been any failures. There’s been no fundamental revision of the thinking.”

Mike Williams, the editor of the Journal of Biophysiology, says that: “Amyloid, despite 30 years of research, really hasn’t gotten anywhere. We’re going to see some major changes if the amyloid hypothesis is totally and utterly wrong. We’ve still got so many other findings in the wings. If any of these got prioritized and funded to the extent of amyloid, we might be a lot closer to getting a drug than we are now.”

Rather than Beta Amyloid, Wischek has set his sights on the protein tau. This protein can also clump together and block cells from getting the nutrients that they need. Similarly, when tau becomes problematic in one part of the brain, a chain reaction occurs and causes more tau to go bad, the Daily Beast says. In the 1990’s, researchers, including Wischek, tied the build-up of tau to the loss of mental capacity, however there has been little success in securing funding to research the protein more fully. A compound known as TRX-015, which targets the harmful type of tau, is currently in the last of three phases of clinical study. Results are expected in the first half of 2016.

Alzheimer’s currently affects more than 5 million Americans, and the cost for their treatment totals about $150 billion a year.