Asthma drug shows promise as Alzheimer’s treatment

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Mature woman touching forehead with pensive expression.
Alzheimer's can cause distressing memory loss. (Getty Images)

An asthma drug has shown promise for treating Alzheimer’s, research suggests.

The memory-robbing disease is incurable, with treatments focusing on easing symptoms.

Read more: Alzheimer's vaccine could be trialled on humans in two years

Although the causes of Alzheimer’s are unclear, it is thought to come about when abnormal proteins accumulate in and around brain cells.

After looking at 80 existing compounds and drugs, scientists from Lancaster University found the medication salbutamol may reduce the build up of microscopic fibres that create the tell-tale protein tangles in Alzheimer’s.

Salbutamol – which is normally administered in a blue inhaler – helps relax muscles in the airways, easing coughs, wheezing and breathlessness.

Close up of an asthma inhaler.
The asthma drug salbutamol is normally administered in a blue inhaler. (Getty Images)

“Salbutamol has already undergone extensive human safety reviews,” said study author Dr David Townsend.

“This drug could offer a step forward, whilst drastically reducing the cost and time associated with typical drug development.”

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, accounting for between half and three quarters of cases in the UK.

Read more: Living near a main road 'raises the risk of dementia by 14%'

Dementia is an umbrella term for disorders that trigger a loss of brain function, affecting around 850,000 people in the UK.

In the US, 5.8 million people live with Alzheimer’s.

Early symptoms tend to include forgetting recent conversations, misplacing items and repeatedly asking questions.

In advanced cases, patients may have difficulty swallowing, develop incontinence or endure significant memory loss.

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According to the Lancaster scientists, failed treatments have largely focused on interfering with the build-up of amyloid protein plaques.

Research is increasingly shifting to disrupting the tau protein.

Using a technique called Synchrotron Radiation Circular Dichroism, the scientists concluded epinephrine, commonly known as adrenaline, stabilises the protein and prevents tangles.

The body does not easily absorb epinephrine, therefore the team focused on drugs the body can break down.

Salbutamol is similar to epinephrine and has a unique ability to affect tau’s fibres, while remaining in the body long enough to benefit patients, according to the scientists.

Read more: Dementia sufferer, 5, recognises his parents again thanks to a new treatment

It is thought to interact with an early stage of tau formation, preventing the fibres from forming an initial nucleus that drives aggregation.

Other drugs the team were initially optimistic about turned out to be ineffective, short-lived or required IV administration, they explained in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience.

Although their results are promising, the team stressed a lot more research is required.

“This work is in the very early stages and we are some way from knowing whether or not salbutamol will be effective at treating Alzheimer’s disease in human patients,” said study author Professor David Middleton.

“However, our results justify further testing of salbutamol, and similar drugs, in animal models of the disease and eventually, if successful, in clinical trials.”

Existing asthma inhalers only deliver salbutamol in small doses. Therefore new administration techniques will be required, added the scientists.

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