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Complex sugars could treat Alzheimer’s disease

10 Sep, 2013

Scientists at the University of Liverpool and Callaghan Innovation in Lower Hutt are the first to chemically synthesise a range of complex sugars called heparan sulphates, which have a natural ability to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

However, this is still years away from clinical testing. The team used a new chemical method to produce the heparan sulphates, which are known to inhibit an enzyme called BACE that creates proteins in the brain that cause memory loss.

Build-up of amyloid in brain

These proteins, called amyloid, disrupt the normal function of cells, leading to the progressive memory loss that is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

In a joint press release, Professor Jerry Turnbull from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology explained that amyloid builds up in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease and causes damage. “BACE has proved to be a difficult enzyme to block despite lots of efforts by drug companies.”

Largest set of heparan sulphates

Heparan sulphates are found in nearly every cell of the body and are similar to the drug heparin.

“We are using a new approach, harnessing the natural ability of sugars, based on the blood-thinning drug heparin, to block the action of BACE.”

Dr Peter Tyler from Callaghan Innovation says, “We have developed new chemical methods that have allowed us to make the largest set of these sugars produced to date. These new compounds will now be tested to identify those with the best activity and fewest possible side effects, as these have potential for development into a drug treatment that targets the underlying cause of this disease.”

Current treatments for dementia can help with symptoms, but at present, there are no drugs available that can slow or stop the underlying disease.

In vitro testing

After the sugars were manufactured in New Zealand, the Liverpool team carried out an initial round of in vitro testing, which was completed at the end of June 2013 with “promising results”. The next round of preclinical testing will be completed by the end of September 2013. Then the team will seek further investment for more advanced trials.

Alzheimer’s disease

According to the research team, there are more than 800 000 people in the UK and 50 000 in New Zealand living with dementia. Over half of these people have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia. The cost of these diseases to the UK economy stands at £23 bn, more than the cost of cancer and heart disease combined. The estimated cost to treat Alzheimer’s disease in New Zealand in 2011 was $954 million.

The research, published in Chemistry – A European Journal, is supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Research UK and New Zealand Government research grants.

The rights have been reserved to keep future commercial-scale manufacturing of heparan sulphates using the new chemical method in New Zealand.

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