LANCASHIRE, United Kingdom — Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia around the world. Around 47 million people are affected and researchers say that number could soar to 130 million by the year 2050. To this day, doctors have not found a treatment which can cure Alzheimer’s or slow its effects on the brain. Now, a new study says there is hope a common asthma medication may fight the disease.
Researchers from Lancaster University say salbutamol can reduce the build-up of microscopic fibers in the brain. These insoluble fibers of tau protein form into abnormal tangles that cause the neurons in the brain to destabilize, brain cells to die, and are a key sign of Alzheimer’s.
“Salbutamol has already undergone extensive human safety reviews,” Dr. David Townsend says in a statement. “This drug could offer a step forward, whilst drastically reducing the cost and time associated with typical drug development.”
Changing tactics against Alzheimer’s
Researchers say most of the work done to treat Alzheimer’s has focused on the build-up of amyloid plaques. That symptom is caused by the misfolding of amyloid beta proteins, which also disrupt the brain. With few promising results, the study says research is now shifting to treating the tau proteins.
Using a technique called Synchrotron Radiation Circular Dichroism, researchers examined 80 existing compounds and drugs to see which were effective at stopping the creation of tau fibers tangles. The research finds that epinephrine, commonly known as adrenaline, stabilizes the protein and stops tangles.
The downside to this discovery is the human body does not easily absorb epinephrine. Researchers instead set their focus on drugs that the body can absorb, and say four fit the description.
Salbutamol checks all the boxes
Etamivan, fenoterol, dobutamine, and salbutamol are all similar to epinephrine. But researchers say only salbutamol has the ability to affect the damaging fibers and remain in the body long enough to benefit patients.
The study says etamivan and fenoterol both show little success in stopping tau tangles. Dobutamine, a treatment for heart attacks, has short-lived benefits and also needs to be given to patients intravenously.
Researchers say salbutamol is easily ingested, can be absorbed by the brain, and stays in the body for several hours.
Long way to go still
Although study authors call the asthma drug a promising Alzheimer’s treatment, they say a lot of work still has to be done.
“This work is in the very early stages and we are some way from knowing whether or not salbutamol will be effective at treating Alzheimer’s disease in human patients,” says Prof. David Middleton. “However, our results justify further testing of salbutamol, and similar drugs, in animal models of the disease and eventually, if successful, in clinical trials.”
Researchers note that salbutamol inhalers only deliver a small amount of the drug to the brain. That means a new way of delivering bigger doses to Alzheimer’s patients is necessary.
The Lancaster University team says future studies may also look at other asthma drugs which are similar to salbutamol, but stay in the blood stream even longer.
The study was published in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience.