The School of Medicine and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca have formed a research collaboration to develop new and improved ways to diagnose and treat Alzheimer’s disease.
The major focus of the alliance will be biomarkers, characteristic changes in the brain and spinal fluid that physicians can use to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and track its response to treatment.
“Alzheimer’s disease is already a huge public health problem that is increasing exponentially,” said David M. Holtzman, M.D., the Andrew B. and Gretchen P. Jones Professor and chair of the Department of Neurology and neurologist-in-chief at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “To prevent this disease with new treatments on the horizon, we need better ways to diagnose the disease before people become cognitively impaired. We are pleased to be collaborating with AstraZeneca on this important initiative.”
“AstraZeneca is focused on transforming cutting-edge science into meaningful medicines,” said Bob Holland, vice president for neuroscience at AstraZeneca. “Collaborating with Washington University gives us access to world-class expertise in the area of Alzheimer’s disease and allows us to explore together potential new ways to help patients suffering from this terrible disease.”
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and affects as many as 5 million Americans. Little is known about what causes Alzheimer’s disease or how it progresses in patients, and the condition has always been difficult for physicians to definitively diagnose. In addition, studies by WUSTL and others have shown that by the time patients begin to suffer obvious symptoms of dementia, Alzheimer’s already has caused extensive and largely irreversible damage to the brain. These factors have made identification of biomarkers that allow earlier and more definite diagnosis of the disease a top priority for research.
The research projects created by the collaborative agreement include an effort to better understand the connections between Alzheimer’s disease and a class of central nervous system compounds called tau proteins. These proteins help maintain the inner structures of nerve cells. Evidence suggests they undergo a chemical change in Alzheimer’s patients, disrupting their ability to maintain nerve cell structure. This leads the tau proteins to snarl in tangles inside the cell, which causes the cell to die. Researchers hope to identify changes in tau proteins present in the spinal fluid that they can add to a panel of indicators of Alzheimer’s disease.
Other projects include looking for new genetic markers linked to Alzheimer’s disease risk and testing potential Alzheimer’s treatments developed by AstraZeneca scientists in models used for Alzheimer’s research by University faculty.
“Scientists from both organizations are very interested in finding new ways to diagnose and treat Alzheimer’s,” Holtzman said. “We believe that combining the world-class expertise and facilities that are found at AstraZeneca and Washington University will help us reach those goals more quickly than either institution could alone.”