Neuroscience speaker focuses on ending degenerative brain disease

By John Forsyth

Towsley Hall was completely packed and attendees were glued to their seats on a cloudy Tuesday night as Dr. Gregory Petsko, a guest speaker from Cornell University, talked about a new experimental drug that could prevent an otherwise inevitable epidemic of neurodegenerative diseases.

Petsko’s lecture, titled “The Coming Epidemic of Neurodegenerative Diseases and What Science Is – And Should Be – Doing About It,” showed how neurodegenerative diseases are currently affecting and will affect the world in the next 50 years and beyond.

According to Albion College neuroscience professor Dr. Jeffrey Wilson, the lecture was “designed to alarm, to serve as a call to action, and to offer some hope.” Petsko gave plenty of alarming figures, stating that the cost of Alzheimer’s disease to the United States alone is currently $250 billion, and will skyrocket to $1 trillion by 2050.  This is due to the dramatic increase in susceptibility to the disease after the age of 60.  The U.S. will have plenty past that benchmark age since the baby boomers are aging.

Petsko talked about the genetics behind Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases in the following way.  “A protein called APP is cut by two scissor proteins that release a [gene fragment] called A-Beta.  When A-Beta is cut out, it releases plaques…”  These plaques are a significant part of what causes the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, including memory loss, confusion, and problems speaking, symptoms which lead to the ongoing suffering of both victims and caregivers.

Wilson said, “Both of these degenerative diseases (Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s) are currently not curable; at best the medical community is able to treat symptoms.  For Parkinson’s the treatment can be very effective, but because the neural degeneration continues the treatments eventually fail.  For Alzheimer’s the current treatments are not very effective.  In both cases we know a lot about what is wrong in the brain, and little about what to do to make it right.”

Petsko’s drug, called R55, provides a novel method for treating Alzheimer’s disease.  Although it is still awaiting clinical trials, Petsko said that it “hopefully…will be more effective…” than other leading Alzheimer’s drugs, which “…do little to nothing…” to treat the disease itself.

What is revolutionary about R55 is that it is designed to “restore normal cell balance,” which could offer some hope to stop the neural degeneration that Wilson mentioned.  When proteins are used up, they can either be recycled by the golgi apparatus and returned to the cell, or they can be discarded by a lysosome.  These are all normal processes.  As people age, for an unknown reason the recycling mechanism in a cell becomes less effective and more “toxic waste,” according to Petsko, builds up in the cell.  This waste leads to the creation of plaques, which are present in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers.

R55 will aid the endosomes and retromers, which act as the facilitators for the recycling and dumping process.  It will largely inhibit the ability of the endosomes and retromers to create trash within the cell, which will lead to more recycling, lower plague levels, and “hopefully,” a much lower occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease.

Interestingly enough, plaques have also been seen in the brains of patients that have suffered Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).  These injuries include concussions.  “R55 may be used to treat concussion sufferers.  Perhaps giving the drug to a football player with a concussion will lower their risk of more permanent brain damage,” said Petsko.

Currently, R55 is finishing up animal trials. Petsko did not explicitly mention any results of the trials thus far, but did say that if it is accepted by the FDA, the “fast track” for human trials would be five to seven years of testing.

“Ultimately, R55 would have to demonstrate its abilities as a safe drug for use by non-human primates before it is put to human clinical trials.”  Wilson commented further, “His novel drug approach offers some hope.”

For now, Petsko recommends living a healthy lifestyle as the best way to eliminate or delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases.  “Go spend $50 at Starbucks…caffeine is shown to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease,” said Petsko.

When asked why he decided to study neurodegenerative diseases, Petsko said, “When I turned 50…I realized I wanted to make a difference.”  Hopefully that difference will come sometime soon.

Photo Credit: John Forsyth

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