They have discovered that metformin, a drug commonly used in the treatment of Type II Diabetes, can help treat Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and also prevent it in healthy people.
A paper published in the most recent edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, known as PNAS, shows that metformin has a significant influence on one of the key causes of the development of AD.
It has long been known that sugar metabolism is a critical factor in the development of AD, and that patients with Diabetes have a higher risk for AD than those who are non-diabetic. The team from Dundee showed that metformin significantly activates a key protein which can prevent cell death in the brains of AD patients.
The risk of Alzheimer’s increases with age and reaches up to 50 per cent in those over 90 years old. Patients lose orientation relatively quickly and require a high level of care, creating an extraordinary challenge for relatives and public health systems. No effective cure has yet been discovered.
Susann Schweiger, Professor of Molecular Medicine at the University’s Division of Medical Sciences, led the research. She explained that the idea to explore metforimin as a possible means of treating and preventing Alzheimer’s occurred to her out of the blue.
“I knew about the effects that metformin had in Type II Diabetes,” she said. “I was cycling to work one day and it occurred to me that if metformin can work in Type II Diabetes and given its mode of function, then it should also have beneficial effects in Alzheimer’s disease.
“I was able to put together an excellent team here in Dundee, as well as working with international colleagues, and our results strongly suggest that, not only in Type II Diabetes patients but also in healthy people, metformin would have a brain-protective effect and that, if given in an early stage, would be a promising medication in the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
“The implications of this research are that, because metformin is already often used in clinical practice, it could go into a clinical trial with Alzheimer’s patients soon. We have shown how the drug works in the brain and the pathology, we would assume, is the same in people who are not diabetic but who have developed Alzheimer’s.
“We would envisage this treatment being used after an early-stage diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. We are not expecting to revive cells that are already dead, but to protect those not yet damaged by the progression of Alzheimer’s.
“The team will now apply for funding for a large, pre-clinical, trial into two different types of Alzheimer’s models. We will also further examine the biochemical processes to see how metformin affects the brain. Pretty soon we would hope to move towards a full clinical trial in AD patients.
“We already know that metformin has few side effects as it is widely used in elderly patients who will be the most likely recipients of this treatment, meaning we already know about safe dosage and usage.”
Professor Schweiger’s team included Paul Thornhill, John Sharkey, Ritchie Williamson, Calum Sutherland from the Biomedical Research Institute, part of the University’s School of Medicine and located at Ninewells Hospital. Désirée Rutschow and Raphael Zeller of the Division of Medical Sciences also contributed to the research, as did collaborators from Austria and Germany.