This article was originally featured on the Alzheimer’s Research UK blog.

As we embark on a new year of dementia research, let’s take a look back to see how 2016 got us talking about dementia.

image 2In Alzheimer’s diseases, there are two hallmark proteins that build up in the brain – amyloid and tau. Unsurprisingly, these two proteins have become the focus of drug discovery research in Alzheimer’s disease. And 2016 was a critical year for proving that one of these approaches might work. In this blog, we’ll explore what happened and how these stories made the headlines.

 

Solanezumab

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Solanezumab is a drug that targets the hallmark Alzheimer’s protein amyloid. This protein can become sticky and clump together to form ‘plaques’ in the brain, and solanezumab was designed to target and remove the sticky amyloid before it clumped together. Initial results from an earlier trial looked promising, so the results from the most recent clinical trial were eagerly anticipated.

Why was it in the news?

The result from this trial were released in November and, sadly, they were not what we had hoped for. Due to the disappointing results, this drug is no longer at the forefront of the search for new treatments.

What next?

These results raised questions about whether this was the best way to target amyloid, or whether future drugs should be tested at an earlier stage in the disease. However, there are other promising studies endeavouring to answer these questions and bring us closer to finding a cure. The results from solanezumab – however undesirable – are helping to refine our knowledge about the limitations of the anti-amyloid approach and shape the ongoing search for new treatments. In January, Alzheimer’s Research UK hosted a round-table meeting of top global dementia experts to discuss the results and make sure we’re moving forward again in the right direction.

 

Aducanumab

Similar to solanezumab, aducanumab is a type of anti-amyloid antibody drug. The main difference is that solanezumab targeted amyloid before it formed plaques, whereas aducanumab is designed to remove plaques once they have formed in the brain.

Why was it in the news?

Last year, we heard about a study showing that aducanumab effectively cleared amyloid plaques from the brain in people. Fantastic, right? Well, maybe. This is a great start, but as with all medical research, we won’t know the full potential of this approach until we have the results of large clinical trials.

What next?

Next, we need to see whether this drug not only clears plaques from the brain, but also has a positive effect on the memory and thinking skills of people with dementia. A phase III clinical trial for aducanumab is currently underway, and has been recruiting participants with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and mild Alzheimer’s disease using the research register Join Dementia Research. Results from this trial are expected in 2022 and if they are positive, it could lead to the first drug to be licensed for Alzheimer’s in over 14 years.

 

Verubecestat

Another drug tackling the build-up of amyloid in the brain, verubecestat aims to nip sticky amyloid in the bud before it has even been formed. It works by blocking the production of amyloid in the first place.

Why was it in the news?

In 2016, the results from an early-stage clinical trial showed that verubecestat reduced the amount of amyloid found in the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Due to these positive results, this drug is now being tested in two further clinical trials, both of which contain much larger groups of people.

What next?

As these subsequent trials were already underway by the time the story was in the news, we don’t have to wait long to hear the results. The two trials – due to end in 2017 and 2018 – are looking to see whether the drug can slow the decline in memory and thinking skills in people at different stages of the disease.

 

LMTM

LMTM is a drug based on a blue dye that is used in research laboratories across the world, and in surgical procedures as a stain. Researchers in Aberdeen hoped that this compound would block a second key dementia protein called tau from clumping together in the brain in diseases like Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia.

Why was it in the news?

The majority of drug development research has focused on blocking amyloid, a hallmark Alzheimer’s protein. However, the results from LMTM were the first to be seen from of a phase III clinical trial of a drug aimed at blocking tau. Unfortunately, despite earlier positive suggestions, scrutiny of the research data showed that the drug did not slow decline in memory and thinking any more than placebo (or dummy treatment).

What next?

As tau is implicated in many forms of dementia, a successful tau-busting drug has the potential to change the landscape of dementia research. There are currently a handful of tau-targeting compounds in the very early stages of clinical trials, so it will be interesting to see how these pan out in the coming years.

 

Sea Hero QuestSea Hero Quest

In 2016, Alzheimer’s Research UK joined forces with Deutsche Telekom to launch Sea Hero Quest, a smartphone game where two minutes of play equates to five hours of dementia research. This fun game designed to help researchers learn more about our spatial navigation and has now had 2.4 million players, generating over 9,400 years’ worth of dementia research!

Why was this app in the news?

The researchers have recently released the first results from this study. These results have shed light on how our spatial navigation changes as we age, and now a new version of the game will be developed for use in a clinical setting.

What next?

By using the game with people with early dementia, and comparing their results to the population data they are working to generate, the team hopes to develop an early diagnostic test for diseases like Alzheimer’s.