Promising Alzheimer’s research takes a step forward

Scientists from Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Liverpool have been awarded more than $850,000 to advance a potential treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

Professor Peter Tyler and Drs Olga Zubkova and Ralf Schwӧrer from Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute, alongside long-time collaborator Professor Jerry Turnbull at the University of Liverpool, have been granted $392,000 from KiwiNet’s PreSeed Accelerator Fund.

The team have also been awarded a grant from the United Kingdom’s Alzheimer’s Society worth more than $450,000 (£260,000 GBP), as well as a New Zealand Federation of Women's Institutes research grant of $15,000 for Dr Zubkova.

The funding will be used to develop drug candidates discovered from research the team has been working on since 2008.

Every 60 seconds someone in the world develops Alzheimer’s disease, which causes an inability to retain new information and difficulty in recognising people and places.

“New drugs that can effectively halt or delay the progression of the disease are urgently needed and this funding is invaluable to progressing our work,” says Professor Tyler.

The approach harnesses the natural ability of complex sugars called heparan sulfates to control the degradation of proteins in the brain that cause memory loss.

The scientists have discovered how to make small heparan sulfates chemically in the lab, and found some of them have the ability to target an enzyme that creates small toxic compounds in the brain believed to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.

“Our molecules are targeted against the formation of these compounds called amyloids. Amyloids disrupt the normal function of cells, leading to the progressive memory loss that is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Professor Tyler.

“The molecules involve sophisticated chemistry processes and have potential to slow or stop progression of the disease. No one else in the world is using this heparan sulfate approach”.

“We also designed a more simplified core for the molecules by replacing sugar fragments with smaller and cheaper carbon versions. The new products will be easier to make, and allow us to prepare larger amounts for testing,” says Dr Zubkova.

Early stages of the research were funded by New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

Professor Tyler expects the remainder of the preclinical tests to take two years, and if successful, the end product can be launched in clinical trials.

The research being developed is exciting, says Anne Barnett, General Manager Commercialisation at Viclink, the University’s commercialisation office.

“There are other drugs currently undergoing clinical trials that target the same mechanism, however our drug candidates work differently and are expected to have far fewer side effects”.

KiwiNet is a consortium of research organisations working together to increase the scale and impact of science-based innovation. KiwiNet recently received $10.3 million of new investment over the next three years, under a new allocation of MBIE’s PreSeed investment, to help transform cutting edge science into commercial reality.