Finding the elusive Alzheimer’s cure

09 Feb 2017

Author: Matthew Hall

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Australian biotechnology company Vaxine and its US partners are developing a vaccine that could revolutionise the treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s, a disease with 7.5 million new sufferers around the world every year.
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A breakthrough in the search for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease has captured world attention.

With its partners at Institute of Molecular Medicine, Vaxine's solution is targeted at early intervention – vaccinating people before they develop an unmanageable amount of symptoms. The scientist leading the research is Nikolai Petrovsky, Professor of Endocrinology at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia and Research Director of Vaxine.

“The vaccine drives the immune system to make antibodies,” he explains. “The antibodies recognise abnormal brain proteins while ignoring normal proteins. They then ‘haul' the abnormal protein out of the brain and destroy them.

"The vaccine essentially teaches the immune system how to recognise abnormal proteins without damaging the normal proteins we need for brain function.”
Petrovsky says the latest vaccine is more powerful and efficient than earlier generations of vaccines.

“People had shown conceptually that this idea might work but they could never induce the body to make enough of the right antibodies. What we have now done is design a vaccine able to generate millions of antibodies so they can quickly find every abnormal protein forming in the brain and dispose of them.”

Petrovsky believes a vaccine for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia could be available to the public within five to seven years.

“A US Government report predicts its health system will be crippled unless a solution to Alzheimer’s disease is found soon,” says Petrovsky. “By 2025, the global cost of Alzheimer’s disease is estimated to be around US$2-3 trillion so spending several billion dollars on Alzheimer’s research is a drop in the ocean compared to how much it will cost to deal with all these patients down the track.
"A solution will ultimately save global health authorities trillions of dollars.” 

A history of breakthroughs

Nikolai Petrovsky in the lab.
Nikolai Petrovsky in the lab.

Petrovsky knows a thing or two about vaccines. With funding support from the US National Institutes of Heath he has helped developed vaccines that fight common and exotic infections including influenza, hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, MERS, HIV And Ebola.

“I’m a clinician first and foremost but my passion has always been to help more than my immediate patients,” Petrovsky says. “As a clinician, I believe we have an obligation not just to treat but to do research to improve disease understanding and develop new treatments.
“The diabetes and endocrine space is my speciality but I run a large research group that has multiple focuses. I have a love of immunology. As a doctor it is good to be able to administer treatments to reduce disease symptoms but it is even better if you can prevent it.”

Incorporated in 2002, Vaxine evolved from earlier work on a sugar-based technology by Dr Peter Cooper, a retired scientist from the Australian National University. The company’s embryonic work focused on a diabetes vaccine, an extension of Petrovsky’s PhD research into how to prevent autoimmune (type 1) diabetes.

This sugar-based technology for enhancing vaccine effectiveness turned out to have broad applicability and attracted post 9/11 biodefense program funding from the US Government. More recently Vaxine has extended these findings to other vaccine applications including cancer prevention (in collaboration with Dr Chris Weir at the University of Sydney) and a vaccine against Alzheimer’s disease (in partnership with Institute for Molecular Medicine associated with the University of California, Irvine). 

Petrovsky has led Vaxine’s Alzheimer’s work for the past decade. Project partner IMM has been working on a treatment for at least two decades. Success is based around collective knowledge, Petrovsky says: “It is not something you can get your head around in a day or two and you need large collaborative teams to solve such complex problems.

“Alzheimer’s is a big challenge for the world,” Petrovsky says. “It is primarily driven by the fact people are living longer. The older you are, the more likely you are to come down with Alzheimer’s but there may also be other lifestyle factors such as Type 2 diabetes and vascular disease that contribute. It is a growing problem.”
“Australia, Europe and all developed countries are going to be faced with the same challenge,” Petrovsky warns. “It is a desperate situation that needs an urgent solution. There currently is no cure but that is the kind of challenge we like – the impossible ones.”

Vaccines of the future 

Vaxine was a finalist in the 2016 Australian Export Awards, recognised for its broad work in the biotechnology field. Vaxine was the first company in the world to bring a swine flu vaccine to human trial stage after the 2009 swine flu pandemic. It is collaborating with the US Army to develop a Ebola vaccine. Vaxine also recently initiated a Zika vaccine development program, and has begun a clinical trial of an avian influenza vaccine to protect against the new H7N9 strain causing periodic deaths in China.

Petrovsky predicts there will be many more vaccine breakthroughs in the near future. The next 20 years may see vaccines for health issues once considered unimaginable. 
“We are going to see a lot of vaccine breakthroughs for things that people never thought you could vaccinate against,” Petrovsky says. “Already there are clinical trials testing vaccines against smoking and cocaine addiction, cancer and high blood pressure. We are seeing an explosion of novel vaccine technologies allowing new approaches and new targets. This is a tremendously exciting time to be in vaccine research”

Find out more about Vaxine