There's finally an Alzheimer's vaccine in the works

If proven safe and effective in human trials, it could treat and even prevent the disease altogether.

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Alzheimer’s disease is nothing short of devastating. While it may seem like a distant possibility for us millennials and Gen Z-ers, we worry about what it could do to our parents and grandparents. While there are drugs to manage disease symptoms and progression, there is currently no cure. The good news is, scientists have been working on a nasal vaccine that could treat and even prevent Alzheimer’s altogether. Brigham and Women’s Hospital has already begun a phase I clinical trial of the vaccine, The Boston Globe reported.

If proven safe and effective in human trials, the vaccine “could represent a nontoxic treatment for people with Alzheimer’s, and it could also be given early to help prevent Alzheimer’s in people at risk,” Romney Center co-director Howard L. Weiner said in a statement released today.

The hospital announced in the statement that the Brigham’s Ann Romney Center for Neurological Disease would enroll 16 participants between the ages of 60 and 85 with early, symptomatic Alzheimer’s disease. They’ll each get doses of the vaccine, spaced a week apart.

The vaccine would work by using an experimental immune modulator to activate the white blood cells in the lymph nodes in the neck, the statement explained. Those white blood cells would then travel to the brain and start the process of removing beta-amyloid plaques, which are clusters of protein fragments known as beta-amyloid, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. According to what’s known as the amyloid theory, when these plaques form deposits in the brain, they lead to memory loss and other forms of cognitive decline.

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But as The Globe pointed out, the link between beta-amyloid plaques and cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease still remains a subject of debate. Instead of beta-amyloid plaques or normal forms of beta-amyloid, researchers in the UK are developing a vaccine and an antibody-based treatment that both target a shortened, soluble form of beta-amyloid believed to be highly toxic, The Independent reported. In mice engineered to model Alzheimer’s, both the vaccine and antibody helped restore neuron function and memory loss. Although the research is in mice, it’s an important first step.

While we await human trials of the U.K. Alzheimer’s vaccine, the Brigham’s trial will determine whether the nasal vaccine is safe and tolerable. Even if it’s still an early-phase trial, the fact that the vaccine has reached this stage of research is promising. And at a time when we still don’t have a cure for a disease estimated to affect as many as 5.8 million Americans in 2020 — a number predicted to reach 14 million by 2060 — I’m all for investigating a plethora of approaches.