By Charlotte Beauclerk

Scientists at the University of St Andrews have made a discovery which could significantly advance the study of Alzheimer’s disease.

Working as part of an international team with funding from the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, they have identified a way of examining the specific enzyme involved in the development of the disease.

The new knowledge has been welcomed by support charities and could enable scientists to develop a new drug which could potentially halt the progress of the disease.

The breakthrough involves viewing the amyloid-binding alcohol dehydrogenase (ABAD) enzyme through a microscope, using a fluorescent tracking chemical.

This enzyme is designed to help the brain cells produce energy. However in people suffering from Alzheimer’s this action is hindered by the toxic protein amyloid, which binds to the enzyme and stops it from functioning properly.

The flourescent tracking chemical that the team have developed allows scientists to see this protein binding process under a microscope for the first time.

Kirsty Muirhead, a PhD student at the University of St Andrews is being funded with an £84, 743 grant from the Alzheimer’s Research Trust to work with the chemical to study the disease. She has been working with scientists around the world in its development.

Muirhead, explains, “We are now able to study the effect of amyloid on the ABAD enzyme in living cells rather than in protein made in a laboratory.

The research we have done has created another tool that scientists can use in the laboratory, to assist with trying to develop drugs that could stop the interaction between ABAD and amyloid.”

She goes further to say that “Our ultimate aim is to stop amyloid binding onto ABAD, which will allow the enzyme to do its job, but before we can do that, we have to be able to measure what is happening inside the cell. This is the first time it has been possible to see the interaction between living cells.”

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative and non-curable disease which affects around 26.6 million sufferers worldwide, principally those over 65, and is predicted to affect 1 in 85 people globally by 2050.

In its later stages its typical symptoms can include mood swings, language breakdown and long-term memory loss. The decline of senses and bodily functions eventually leads to the death of the sufferer.

Alzheimer’s disease is also the most common cause of dementia. 4,000 people in Fife alone suffer from dementia.

On the possibility of developing a drug to stop the advance of Alzheimer’s, Muirhead says, “Making new drugs is a very long process and there is no easy way to predict when a breakthrough will come.

However, this project has been an example of collaboration between scientists with different areas of expertise from both the UK and the USA, and this allows the research to be seen from many different perspectives, which opens up to give new ideas.”

Muirhead says that she chose to work on the project because she wanted to “do something that was going to have a benefit for people.” She continues to say that she is very excited about the progress made by the chemical developmnent.

Her supervisor, Dr Frank Gunn-Moore, a neurobiologist in the School of Biology, says, “this work marks an important development for us, and has partly been made possible because scientists from different fields have come together to share their knowledge. Indeed, this has been a team effort from ourselves here in St Andrews and Kirsty’s co-superivsor Dr Stuart Conway at the Univeristy of Oxford.”

The Alzheimer’s Research Trust was founded in 1992 and is the UK’s leading dementia research charity. They have described the development as “an exciting step forward for dementia research.”

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