Today, some 24 million people worldwide are affected by dementia with more than 4 million new cases recorded every year. This equates to a new case every eight seconds. To address these staggering figures, EU-funded researchers have engineered tiny particles to trace and treat Alzheimer's - the most prevalent neurodegenerative disease.
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Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia or mental deterioration typically occurring in old age. In Europe alone, some five million people are reported to have dementia. One in 20 people over 65 years, and one in five over 85 are classified as Alzheimer’s sufferers.
Given Europe’s ageing population, these numbers are expected to rise dramatically. Unless radical new treatments reverse the trend, cases are expected to double in Western Europe and triple in Eastern Europe over the next 30 years.
Despite advances which have made interpretation of the molecular basis of the disease possible, there has been little progress in diagnosis and therapy. The EU-funded NAD project has been working to change that by developing nanoparticles which can be adapted to the specifics of what is known about the causes of this debilitating brain disorder.
Drugs need to be designed to pass biological barriers, such as the gastro-intestinal barrier (the stomach and intestines) if taken orally, or the blood-brain barrier in the case of brain disease.
However, getting the larger molecules of drug treatments to cross the biological barriers within the human body is a major challenge. The NAD project has managed to do this by using nanoparticles to reach the area most affected by Alzheimer’s.
Attached to these nanoparticles are molecules that can then recognise the insoluble fibrous protein deposits known as amyloids that are characteristic of the disease. The nanoparticles also work to remove the amyloid deposits.
Hitting the disease where it hurts.
In an Alzheimer’s sufferer, amyloids play a central role in the neurodegeneration of the brain – they are released in a soluble form but progressively become insoluble, forming hard deposits.
Knowing that amyloids in the brain and blood are linked to Alzheimer’s has helped the NAD team to specifically engineer multi-functional nanoparticles to target affected areas where amyloids are forming and to deliver tailored treatments. The results are expected to have an enormous impact on the early diagnosis and therapy of the disease.
“The removal of amyloids from the brain should slow down, or even stop, the neurogeneration process,” says Prof. Massimo Masserini of the University of Milano-Bicocca and coordinator of the NAD project. “Early therapeutics when the disease is in the initial stage would increase the life expectancy – and quality – of Alzheimer patients.”
The research team has developed several artificial and cellular models to improve the efficiency of the nanoparticles to seek out the amyloid deposits.
Tests have been carried out on genetically modified mice with Alzheimer’s disease. The NAD consortium was able to show the nanoparticles they developed were able to lower the amyloid content in the rodents’ brains.
The end-goal of the project is then to use the nanoparticles to detect and remove amyloid brain deposits in humans, once testing procedures are complete and regulatory approval is achieved.
Future applications should lead to more effective approaches to treating Alzheimer’s and improve the quality of life for the elderly, while helping to reduce the burden on Europe’s healthcare systems.
The project’s results, which include several filed patents, are also expected to lead to further basic and applied research in this complex medical area.
“The use of new diagnostic and therapeutic methods based on nanotechnology is one of the potential future answers to the immense societal and economic problems linked to Alzheimer’s disease,” notes the NAD team.
The researchers are keen to communicate their findings as widely as possible to educate the public and stimulate dialogue on this important subject with other scientists. The NAD team has already published more than 50 articles in major biotechnology and nanotechnology journals.