Radical new way to approach dementia treatments

23 Mar 2021

A partnership between Macquarie University neuroscientist Professor Lars Ittner and UQ Diamantina Institute cancer expert Professor Nikolas Haass has led to the breakthrough discovery of a mechanism that protects neurons from dementia-causing plaques.

The process by which Alzheimer’s Disease develops has been debunked by the researchers harnessing a system originally developed for cancer research, paving the way for a radical rethink of how researchers look for dementia treatments.

Professor Haass said the discovery would allow researchers to observe and analyse the life cycle of individual brain cells over time, including their response to potential new drug treatments.

“Our findings are very exciting, as we challenge one of the long-standing theories for how Alzheimer’s Disease develops,” Professor Haass said.

“We found that neurons (nerve cells) that are able to restart the cell cycle program are protected from the toxic effect of the Alzheimer β-amyloid, while neurons that are not able to do so will die.

“Thus, this discovery paves the way for a radical rethink on how to approach the search for treatments of dementia.”

The new findings reveal that mechanisms in brain cells, which were previously thought to be associated with cell death in Alzheimer’s Disease, appear to actually be providing a protective mechanism, resisting Alzheimer’s Disease cell death and potentially prolonging progression of the disease.

Professor Haass established and further developed a method to study cell cycle and cell death in cancer in real time.

“Using this approach, I can observe and analyse the fate of individual cells over time, for example in response to drugs or toxins,” Professor Haass said.

Professor Haass applied his expertise about the cell cycle behaviour, which is considered unique in the field of neurobiology.

Crucial to the findings was the sharing of knowledge between Macquarie University’s Dementia Research Centre and UQ’s Faculty of Medicine’s Experimental Melanoma Therapy Group.

Macquarie University’s Professor Lars Ittner said the collaboration demonstrated that methodologies developed for research in to one disease (cancer) could be extended to interdisciplinarily address other entities, such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

“This discovery reveals the need to continue to join forces where interdisciplinary barriers exist; without a cancer researcher involved we wouldn’t have been able to get to this finding,” Professor Ittner said.

“A cell state that we so far believed to drive the disease is actually protecting the neurons. This opens up new research avenues, ideas and opportunities to harvest natural protective mechanisms for future dementia drug development.”

The research paper, co-authored by Professor Haass and Professor Ittner, has been published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal (DOI 10.1073/pnas.2011876118).

Media: Professor Nikolas Haass, n.haass1@uq.edu.au, 3443 7087; Faculty of Medicine Communications, med.media@uq.edu.au, 3365 5118, 0436 368 746.