A cancer drug may stimulate the production of proteins needed for long-term memory, supporting interest in the compound as a possible treatment for Alzheimer's disease, researchers said on Monday.
Scientists at the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute and the Marine Biological Laboratory report that introducing bryostatin into a marine snail, days before a learning activity, caused a marked improvement in long-term memory.
"This could be a real breakthrough for Alzheimer's patients," said Dr. Daniel Alkon, institute scientific director and lead author of the study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
The Alzheimer's Association says about 4.5 million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer's and its incidence is forecast to rise as the U.S. population ages to as many as 16 million people by 2050.
An early symptom of Alzheimer's disease is losing the ability to store new memories for the long term and bryostatin appears to enhance this long-term storage.
In the snail experiment, researchers put bryostatin in sea water, days in advance of any learning or training, causing certain proteins to be made by the neurons of the snails.
When the snails were trained days later, instead of remembering something for a minute or two, they would remember it for weeks, researchers said.
Last year, experiments in mice suggested bryostatin also helps prevent the protein buildup seen in the brains of Alzheimer's victims.
Bryostatin was found in bacteria that act as a chemical defense mechanism for the marine invertebrate Bugula neritina, a purplish brown animal with stringy tufts.
The Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute, is named for West Virginia Democratic Sen. John Rockefeller's mother, who died after a struggle with Alzheimer's disease.
The institute has a patent for use of bryostatin to treat Alzheimer's disease and is in discussion with the private sector on a partnership to shepherd the drug through clinical trials and any subsequent marketing efforts.
"We believe we are on the right path toward providing Alzheimer's patients and their families with a treatment that goes to the underlying cause of the disease," institute president Dr. Robert D'Alessandri said in a statement.