Study finds protein structure that may stop Alzheimer’s

two young scientists running tests

While there are ways to promote cognitive function and slow the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, there is no cure. It continually progresses, worsening with age until it eventually ends in death. But researchers have been hard at work for years trying to determine just what causes this form of dementia so they can develop a plan to stop the disease in its tracks – before it begins to deteriorate memory and cognitive function. Now, a big breakthrough brings the scientific community one step closer to a cure.

The research

Bioengineers at the University of Washington conducted a study to develop and test a peptide structure that could benefit people with Alzheimer’s. For a decade, they used computer simulations to prove the validity of the structure by designing stable compounds and evaluating their ability to bind amyloid proteins linked to Alzheimer’s. This research began a decade ago in researcher Dr. Vaerie Daggett’s lab when a former graduate student, Roger Armen, first discovered this new secondary structure through computer simulations. Daggett’s team was able to prove its validity in recent years by designing stable compounds and testing their ability to bind toxic versions of different amyloid proteins in the lab.

The findings, which were published in the journal eLife, showed that the structure, coined an “alpha sheet,” has the potential to block harmful changes that occur to the normal proteins in the body – changes linked to Alzheimer’s disease as well as other debilitating conditions including Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s and heart disease. This peptide structure may also have positive effects on Type 2 diabetes.

How it works

Alzheimer’s disease is associated with the a buildup of proteins in the body that develops after the molecules, which are folded in their natural form, unfold into abnormal formations called plaques or fibrils. This unfolding process happens with age, but as people reach their older years and their bodies are less able to break down proteins efficiently, higher concentrations of these plaques and fibrils are left in the body. The synthetic peptide structure developed by the UW bioengineers blocks these proteins as they transform from their natural structure into the abnormal formations, targeting a middle phase during which the protein unfolds and becomes toxic, leading to Alzheimer’s and other conditions.

What this means for seniors with Alzheimer’s

While the scientific details behind the “alpha sheet” are intriguing, seniors are wondering how, specifically, this will affect them. The UW researchers are hopeful that their findings linking Alzheimer’s and other conditions to abnormal protein formations will be used as a diagnostic tool for amyloid diseases so steps can be taken immediately to ease the progression of Alzheimer’s and other amyloid diseases. But the larger goal is for the peptide structure to be used as the basis of pharmaceuticals that treat this form of dementia or, at the very least, slows the progression of Alzheimer’s.

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