Potential Alzheimer's Vaccine Could Be On The Way After Findings In University Of New Mexico Study On Mice

Researchers at the University of New Mexico say they have developed a vaccine that can reduce the accumulation of a protein in the brain that leads to the tragic disease Alzheimer's. The protein, called tau, normally serves a stabilizing function inside the information-transmitting brain cells known as neurons. But in Alzheimer's patients, tau grows out of control, clumping into "tangles" that block neurons from sending signals to each other and, as a result, impairing brain function, memory and cognitive ability, according to a summary of the study released by the UNM Health Sciences Newsroom.

But the researchers now say they have "a vaccine that could prevent the formation of the tau tangles and potentially prevent the cognitive decline typically seen in Alzheimer's patients."

So far, the vaccine has been tested in mice, revealing that the mice injected with the vaccine developed antibodies to excess tangles of tau, which actually cleaned out the tangles from the brains of the mice, according to a report on the study published by Salon.com. In addition, the vaccine had a long-lasting effect, with the tau-clearing antibodies remaining in the mice's brains for months at a time.

"These results confirm that targeting tau tangles using a vaccine intervention could rescue memory impairments and prevent neurons from dying," said Nicole Maphis, lead author of the study which was published in the journal NPJ Vaccines.

Hands exchanging cash in front of Pfizer logo.
Getty Images | Spencer Platt
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer declined to research a drug that showed potential for preventing Alzheimer's disease.

The announcement of the encouraging results on mice come about a week after a shocking Washington Post report revealed that scientists at the giant pharmaceutical-maker Pfizer had discovered a drug that could significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer's — but they declined to pursue further research.

Analyzing "hundreds of thousands" of insurance claims in 2015, Pfizer found that its anti-arthritis drug Enbrel appeared to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's by 64 percent. But to conduct a full clinical trial that could lead to FDA approval of the drug for use to prevent Alzheimer's would have cost $80 million, the Post reported, adding that Pfizer then simply sat on the data, keeping it from public view.

But Pfizer denied that a profit motive factored into its decision not to pursue research into the drug as an Alzheimer's treatment, according to New Scientist. Instead, Pfizer said that its researchers simply did not find the data fully persuasive.

The University of New Mexico researchers say that they are now seeking funding to test their tau-tangle-fighting vaccine on human Alzheimer's patients in a clinical trial, rather than only on lab mice, according to Salon.com.