Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:14:57 AM CST

Top Stories

Neurobiologist William Klein / Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences; Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center.

This photo shows synapses after 3 hoursof exposure to high levels of ADDLs. The significantly decreased size of the clusters on the synapses is the same observed in individuals with other forms of cognitive impairment such as mental retardation.

New hope for identifying and treating Alzheimer's

by Farahnaz Mohammed
May 22, 2014


Farahnaz Mohammed / MEDILL

William Klein addresses the Chicago Science Writers about a neurotoxin that attacks the brain and may be the root cause of Alzheimer's disease.

Research in identifying neurotoxins in the brain that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease offers new hope in the fight against Alzheimer's disease, a disease that strikes one in five people over 65.

Alzheimer's researcher William Klein, a Northwestern University neurobiologist, spoke to the Chicago Science Writers Thursday about his work in identifying the toxin that attacks the communications system between neurons in the brain. This could help in developing methods for earlier and more accurate diagnosis, and Klein hopes it will ultimately lead to treatment for the disease.
“We’ve got a horrible problem that kills people and destroys families for which the diagnosis is imprecise,” said Dr. Klein.
Alzheimer’s is a devastating degenerative brain disease that affects up to 5 million Americans, according to the National Institute on Aging. It affects the brain’s capacity to retain memory and is the leading cause of dementia in elderly populations. One in five women and one in eight men will develop Alzheimer's, but the higher rates in women results from their longer lifespan, Klein said.

Klein and his team discovered the neurotoxins, which Klein referred to as ADDLs (adding that “ADDLs addle the brain”). ADDLs target and destroy synapses that allow neurons in the brain to communicate, leading to memory loss and, as the disease progresses, eventual loss of control of motor skills. ADDLs stand for Amyloid-beta-Derived Diffusable Ligands. These are proteins in structure, but in an altered and toxic form.  

Tests of brain tissues from patients who died from Alzheimer’s show up to 70 times more ADDLs present than normal brain samples. The presence of ADDLs may be detectable long before symptoms appear, meaning a better prognosis for those afflicted, Klein said.

Although there are medications for symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, there is currently no cure. Klein spoke about the withdrawal of investment as clinical trials for Alzheimer’s drugs have proven ineffective. This has led to fewer options for researchers attempting to develop drugs to combat the disease.

Acumen, a company co-founded by Klein, worked in partnership with Merck to develop an antibody that holds promise in diagnosing and treating Alzheimer's. The antibody is ready to go to clinical trials, but Klein said his lab is looking for funding to support the anticipated $20 million cost to accomplish this. Some $70 million has been invested by Merck in the antibody development, Klein said.

The emotional cost for both patients afflicted with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones is high, as many sufferers become fully dependent on others for care as the disease progresses. It is a very expensive disease, costing $200 billion a year in care and medication in the U.S.

Eventually, the disease is fatal. It affects the brain as a control organ. “You can’t eat, you’re bedridden, all contributing to greater susceptibility to disease,” explained Dr. Klein. Although Alzheimer’s is associated most strongly with memory loss and dementia, Dr. Klein explained, “Memory loss is in the early stages, then it goes to total shutdown.”

 Klein is hoping further investigations into ADDLs and their connection with Alzheimer’s with allow earlier identification, better tracking of the disease through monitoring the gradual proliferation of ADDLs and a way to evaluate the efficacy of therapeutic interventions.