Alzheimer’s disease could be cured with a drug that destroys rogue proteins…Pac-Man style.
Scientists say the drug would encourage neurons to gobble up toxic chemicals that clump together in the brain, causing memory loss and confusion.
The process – called autophagy or ‘self-eating’ – has been likened to the cult video game character Pac-Man.
Now British scientists have discovered how it works – paving the way for the first effective dementia therapy.
It also offers hope of combating other neuro-degenerative diseases including Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.
Study lead author Dr Shouqing Luo, of Plymouth University, said the conditions are triggered when autophagy breaks down.
Grey matter is no longer able to getting rid of unwanted proteins which then clump together – causing devastating mental and physical harm.
Dr Luo said: “By understanding more about autophagy and the details of the processes involved we can identify what might be going wrong and therefore where to target when it comes to tackling neurodegenerative diseases.”
He added: “This research is a major step in helping us to do that.”
Cells regularly go through autophagy – destroying bacteria and viruses after infection, for instance.
Dr Luo, working with colleagues in China and the US, identified the protein that fuels it.
Known as DAXX, lab experiments found it acts as the switch that clears waste from cells.
The breakthrough reported in Nature Communications opens the door to the development of medications that mimic its activity.
Autophagy occurs naturally in healthy people but is impaired in those with diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Parkinson’s and Huntington’s also occur when brain cells lose their function and ultimately die.
A common feature of these conditions is mutated proteins – such as amyloid-beta and tau in dementia.]
These proteins accumulate to cause irreversible damage to brain cells. Patients are unable to clear them due to their autophagy being impaired.
Dr Luo and colleagues have shed light on the mechanisms behind the process – which may hold the key to stopping their spread.
They said it helps clarify a vital part in the development of dementia and similar conditions.
Dr Luo said: “The next step for us is to look at applying the science within human cells, so we can further clarify how the protein interaction and the new DAXX function are relevant to neurodegenerative conditions including Huntington’s, and whether we can target it to help prevent disease progression.
“Huntington’s is an inherited disease that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain.
“It has a broad impact on a person’s functional abilities and currently there is no cure, so it’s vital we continue our work to find out how and why the disease develops.”
In the UK, 850,000 people have dementia with Alzheimer’s being the most common form. And around 145,500 people are living with Parkinson’s.
Neuro-degenerative diseases affect millions worldwide – with more than five million Alzheimer’s and at least 500,000 Parkinson’s cases in the US alone.
Huntington’s, which also affects muscle co-ordination and leads to cognitive decline, is genetically inherited. At least 6,700 people are living with it in England and Wales.