Scientists at Northwestern Medicine are developing a new way to target the brain

Scientists at Northwestern Medicine are developing a new way to target the brain

Dina Beer and Katherine Zink

7 hours ago

It could change the direction of treatment for neurodegenerative disease. Alzheimer’s disease affects approximately 7 million people in the United States. There are few treatments available and no long-term data showing improvement. Now local researchers say they have another idea.

Dr. Marcus Peter is a cancer researcher at Northwestern University.


“The last few years have been very exciting,” he added. “It came about because of our interest in cancer research and so we came from the side and discovered that and put the pieces together.”

Those pieces are two types of short RNA. Our body relies on protective and toxic filaments to regulate proteins essential for cell function — and sometimes to attack cancer cells with what might be considered a built-in “kill code.” But as we age, the balance between the two seems to become imbalanced, leaving some people vulnerable to developing Alzheimer’s disease.

“We think this may be one of the reasons why there are decades of symptom-free life in Alzheimer’s disease, and at some point the disease starts creeping up,” Peter said.

It’s a new approach. For years, plaques and tangles in the brain have been the focus of research and the target of potential treatments.

“Plaques and tangles are still involved, but what has never been clarified is how they relate to the cell death that occurs and the dying neurons,” Peter said.

The seniors provided further proof of concept.

“They are over 80 years old and have as much memory as 50-60-year-olds,” Peter said. “We were lucky enough to obtain some brain tissue from these patients, and it turned out that the protective RNA was still at higher levels than in the control group.”

Their next step was to find potential drugs that stabilize or delay the demise of protective RNA in the brain, a treatment that might help more patients.

“It may not just be Alzheimer’s,” Peter said. “We think this balance may play a role in a number of complex neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Parkinson’s disease.”

Peter says any new treatment they find will likely have to be given in combination with existing treatments. The team continues its research in animal models.

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