Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and affects 28,000 Hawaii residents, but a scientist at the University of Hawaii is reporting a research breakthrough that could lead to a promising treatment.

Robert Nichols, professor of cell and molecular biology at UH’s John A. Burns School of Medicine, discovered that a small chunk from the same compound known to trigger Alzheimer’s can actually protect nerve cells in the brain from the disease.

The study was recently published in the Journal of Neurochemistry.

It began in 2014 and funding comes from UH Foundation and National Institutes of Health grants. Nichols is now working with scientists at the University of Arizona to see if the discovery can translate into a future pharmaceutical.

Researcher Robert Nichols is working with scientists at the University of Arizona on future drug development. Deborah Manog/UHMed

“A big part of the future will be coming up with this stable, active form of this fragment that can get into the brain and have its activity in the brain so it’s not just active in the test tube,” Nichols said.

Although there are treatments for symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, it is the only cause of death among the top 10 that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, a national nonprofit organization.

High levels of beta amyloid, a sticky protein that clumps together, is known to trigger Alzheimer’s disease and cause nerve cells in certain parts of the brain to die, which leads to increased memory loss and confusion.

Nichols and his team at UH discovered that applying a smaller, nontoxic fragment from a larger beta amyloid compound in the brain can protect nerve cells and restore memory processing.

If this could be developed into a drug treatment, then it could have a significant impact on those suffering from the disease.

“It not only alleviates symptoms from what we’ve seen, but can also stop the disease and potentially even reverse any detrimental effects that have already happened,” said Kelly Forest, a postdoctoral fellow at the UH medical school.

Most Expensive Disease In America

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia and kills more Americans than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

The exact cause of the disease is unknown but there are a number of factors believed to increase a person’s risk of the condition. This includes aging, a history of the condition in family members and untreated depression.

In Hawaii, about 28,000 people 65 and older have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, according a report by the Alzheimer’s Association.

But because Hawaii’s life expectancy at birth is the highest in the nation, the number of residents living with the disease is expected to increase by 25 percent by the year 2025.

John A. Burns School of Medicine. Kakaako. 8 sept 2015. photogrpah Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Nichols’ laboratory is located in the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

The Hawaii Executive Office on Aging released the state’s first comprehensive strategy for addressing dementia, Hawaii 2025: State Plan on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias, in 2014.

The report aligns with the National Plans to Address Alzheimer’s Disease and was created as a blueprint to prevent and treat the condition by 2025.

Another goal of the report is to provide more support for the state’s dementia caregivers. More than 80 percent of dementia care is provided in the home by unpaid caregivers, the report said.

Alzheimer’s is the most expensive disease in America, costing more than cancer and heart disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

“It affects our state by having caregivers who are struggling to balance caregiving along with paying their bills and we already know how expensive Hawaii can be,” said Christine Payne, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Aloha Chapter.

Payne said that paying for the proper care for loved ones diagnosed with the disease can bankrupt families and take a toll on their emotional well-being.

“As time goes on the number of people affected continues to increase and the sooner we start addressing it, the better,” Payne said.

A conference is planned for June 21 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki to provide access to national and international experts in Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

The event is open to local caregivers, families and professionals, and a $25 minimum donation to the Alzheimer’s Association Aloha Chapter is requested from participants.

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