Alzheimer's 'vaccine' could cut dementia cases in half, researcher says

"A DNA vaccine given to a mouse modeled to have Alzheimer’s disease reduced beta-amyloid plaques (red) and tau tangles (green) in the hippocampus region of the brain. Below: An untreated mouse modeled to have Alzheimer’s disease accumulated notably more beta-amyloid plaques (red) and tau tangles (green) in the hippocampus region of the brain." | "Drs. Roger Rosenberg, left, and Doris Lambracht-Washington have developed a DNA vaccine that can reduce in mice both toxic proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease." Courtesy: UT Southwestern

Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern have developed an Alzheimer's vaccine that has shown promise in mice, monkeys and rabbits. 

One researcher said he is confident they are "getting close to testing this therapy in people."

Researchers with UT Southwestern's Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute said the vaccine reduced tau and beta-amyloid, proteins linked to Alzheimer's disease, in three mammals.

While a similar vaccine was developed elsewhere, that therapy caused brain swelling in some human patients. The vaccine created by scientists at the UT Southwestern, however, doesn't cause brain swelling.

Dr. Roger Rosenberg, founding director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at UT Southwestern, said they took a new approach to the administration of the vaccine. Rosenberg said the UT Southwestern vaccine is injected into skin cells of mice as opposed to injecting it into the muscles of mice. This method, Rosenberg said, elicits a different immune response.

According to a news release, the injected skin cells make a three-molecule segment of beta-amyloid, then the body responds by creating antibodies that prevent the buildup of the two proteins. The antibodies directly target amyloid while also indirectly inhibiting the build up of tau.

Dr. Doris Lambracht-Washington, the study’s senior author, said the number of cases of dementia could "drop by half" as a result of the vaccine.

No treatments exist for the debilitating disease, but Rosenberg said researchers are also working on a spinal test that could detect abnormal levels of the proteins before people display symptoms of the disease. That test could identify possible candidates for the vaccine.

“The longer you wait, the less effect it will probably have,” Rosenberg said in a news release. “Once those plaques and tangles have formed, it may be too late.”