In a towering, modern building overlooking Brisbane’s showgrounds, scientists are so close to a breakthrough in dementia treatments that the optimism is almost palpable.
Led by cellular and molecular neurodegeneration lab group leader associate professor Tony White, researchers are quietly studying how brain cells respond to various treatments at Herston’s QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute.
While science still doesn’t understand the causes of dementia, experts know that existing drugs can only be effective if they break the barrier between the blood and the brain.
And that turns out to be the most difficult aspect of dementia research.
“The brain has a barrier between the blood and the brain to stop anything the brain doesn’t want to enter there, such as bacteria or toxins, but it also means drugs can’t get into the brain,” says Dr. white.
“So we’re trying to find ways to open that barrier and let the drugs in and that’s something we’re very focused on here.
“A lot of people are working on different drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, but most of those drugs don’t get into the brain.
“If we can find a way to open the blood-brain barrier to allow drugs to pass from the blood to the brain, that will be a major advance in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and dementia.”
What is dementia?
In a healthy brain, two proteins – amyloid and tau – like to share space.
But in Alzheimer’s patients, the compounds combine and form plaques on brain tissue that kill healthy brain cells.
dr. White says these changes in the interaction between the proteins occur “very early” in life, but there’s still no way to detect them.
“But by the time you’re in your 60s and 70s, we start to see a buildup of amyloid in the brain and tau builds up in neurons and these cause the degeneration of brain cells and the inflammation of other cells in the brain.
The team of dr. White is getting closer and closer to providing a more hopeful future for the approximately 500,000 people living with dementia in Australia.
He was instrumental in discovering a copper-based drug that removed some of the amyloid plaque that forms on the brain.
That achievement led to a drug that is still in clinical trials.
The current work of Dr. White with PhD student Joanna Wasielewska is also having success using ultrasound to get more beneficial drugs into the brain to treat the condition.
While it’s mostly a condition that affects adults, there are about 70 diseases that also cause dementia in children, a devastating diagnosis that the QIMR Berghofer team is also targeting to find answers.
Small organs change research
In a small room next to the main lab is a rather harmless-looking storage area.
From the outside, it could be confused with a small refrigerator, but inside are tiny, spinning disks with tiny brains.
The largest brains, grown from tissue of people with dementia, are only 8 mm in size and take up to two months to grow.
It’s these tiny organs that researchers are using to test new ways to break the blood-brain barrier.
dr. Romal Stewart is in charge of the small ones, which he says need daily attention for the first few weeks of their lives.
“For the first two weeks or so, you have to make daily media changes,” he says.
“During the beginning of the pandemic it was difficult and we wrote letters asking if we could keep coming to the lab.”
Such important research was allowed to continue despite COVID restrictions.
Personal mission for researcher
dr. White began his career in dementia research 30 years ago, and tragedy struck just a decade later when his mother Patricia was diagnosed with the disease in her 70s.
“I was working in the field and understood what was going on. I couldn’t imagine any drugs that would improve her outcome,” he said.
“My father, who was taking care of my mother at the time, very often asked about the last treatment and if there was anything ahead.
“But there was nothing that could help her at the time.
“It was a tough time then because there wasn’t really a lot of positive, but I think things are changing now because we’re starting to see some positive results from research.”
Future without dementia possible
With a global team of scientists working daily to improve treatments for dementia, Dr. White that there is “absolute” hope for a future without the degenerative condition.
“Many decades ago there was no future for people with cancer and when they were diagnosed it was more or less a death sentence,” says Dr. white.
“But now there are many great treatments for cancer.
“You don’t have to slow it down much to give people a better quality of life.”
Treatment that gives hope to younger people
A dementia-free future won’t come in time for Bridget Smith’s dad, but she’s hopeful the mom of three can enjoy it.
Garry Smith was hospitalized last year with lung problems, but there his dementia was sudden and soon impossible to ignore.
“He’s forgotten things from his past, but certainly not things in his present like me and my boys,” says Ms Smith, who works in QIMR Berghofer’s communications team.
“The research that people like Dr Tony White are doing here is incredible.
“I’m 43. Considering that my father is so young at 76 that he has dementia, I hope that while this study may not help my father, it may help my generation.”
The dementia research team of QIMR Berghofer will organize a dementia forum this evening from 5 pm to 7 pm.
A recording of the event will also be posted on qimrberghofer.edu.au.
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