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Cancer Drug May Offer Hope Against Alzheimer’s

FILE - One hemisphere of a healthy brain (L) is pictured next to one hemisphere of a brain of a person suffering from Alzheimer disease.

A cancer drug may offer hope for those suffering from Alzheimer’s, according to a new study.

Writing in the journal Brain, researchers from the University of California, Irvine, say the drug “disarms” the brain’s reaction to beta-amyloid plaques, a “hallmark” of the degenerative brain disease.

Researchers say that in response to the plaques, the brain produces inflammatory cells called microglia, which “contribute to the neuronal and memory deficits seen in this neurodegenerative disease.”

"Our findings demonstrate the critical role that inflammation plays in Alzheimer's-related memory and cognitive losses," said Kim Green, an assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior. "While we were successful in removing the elevated microglia resulting from beta-amyloid, further research is required to better understand the link among beta-amyloid, inflammation and neurodegeneration in Alzheimer's."

Green said the drug, pexidartinib, or PLX3397, is being used to treat cancer, but that it also selectively blocks microglia signaling from their surface receptors, which “are necessary for microglial survival and proliferation in response to various stimuli, including beta-amyloid.”

This led to a “dramatic reduction” of inflammatory cells.

The researchers said the drug “restored memory function in test mice.”

Even though the drug appeared to remove the microglia, the plaques remained.

In a healthy person, microglia “act as the first and main form of immune defense in the central nervous system,” researchers noted.

However for those with Alzheimer’s, the microglia “turn against the healthy tissue they were originally assigned to protect, causing inflammation in the brain.”

"Our work is telling us that these cells may contribute to the disease process, and targeting them with such specific drugs is a promising new approach," he said.