- Alkahest, a startup spun out of Stanford University, is exploring whether plasma could be used to treat people living with Alzheimer’s. The hope is to use parts of plasma to regenerate neurons in the brain, something the team has seen happen in animal models. An early trial had somewhat encouraging results, prompting another trial that will start later this year or in early 2018.
A startup spun out of Stanford University is looking to use the blood of young people to treat people living with Alzheimer’s disease.
On Wednesday, the company, called Alkahest, came out with data that suggests the treatment could work in humans, after successfully seeing an effect in animal models.
Alkahest’s work is based on research from Stanford neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray, who found that injecting young blood into old animals improved their cognitive function. That ability is what declines in people with Alzheimer’s, a neurodegenerative condition.
If used in humans, such a treatment would infuse components of blood from healthy, young donors into those living with Alzheimer’s to regenerate neurons in their brains – an effect the team has seen happen in the animal models.
As part of an early-stage study of the blood treatment, nine participants with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s got four weekly infusions of either blood plasma from 18- to 30-year-old men or a placebo saline solution. After a six-week break, they switched – the group that got saline got plasma and vice versa. Another nine people got the plasma over the entire course of the trial.
Science reports that the trial found the treatment to be safe, but the participants getting the plasma didn’t score better on cognitive tests. However, they did perform better on daily tasks according to surveys of their caregivers, who were asked to evaluate their patients.
A neuroscientist not affiliated with the study told Science that those surveys need to be taken with a grain of salt, though, since the positive responses could be due to the placebo effect from caregivers paying more attention to the patients, since they knew they were taking part in a trial.
The full data will be presented on Saturday at an industry conference.
This isn’t the first time the blood of younger people has been considered as a treatment, however. A startup called Ambrosia wants to use young blood transfusions to fight aging.
Joe McCracken, vice president of business development at Alkahest, told Business Insider that the company was surprised to see that the technique was working at all in their early trial.
“This isn’t a Eureka moment,” he said. Even so, the trial was encouraging enough to lead the team to conduct another study, this time using just certain factors found in plasma.
Why people are looking for new Alzheimer’s treatments
The search for an Alzheimer’s treatment has been unsuccessful for years.
The latest failure came in September, when pharmaceutical company Axovant said its drug, intepirdine, failed a key late-stage trial.
Alzheimer’s affects more than 5 million Americans, a number that’s expected to balloon to 13.8 million by 2050. There are only four drugs that have been approved to treat the symptoms of the disease, and the most recent drug approval happened in 2003.
This has been a particularly tough year for companies trying to develop Alzheimer’s treatments. In February, Lundbeck discontinued two of its trials, Merck discontinued one of its studies, and Accera failed a late-stage trial. Axovant’s trial results were the last major results to come out in 2017, with the next ones expected in 2018 and 2019.
The setbacks have led companies to seek out other ways to confront the disease – Alkahest’s use of young people’s plasma being a prime example.
Alzheimer’s researchers are also considering treatment regimens that begin much earlier in a patient’s life. Research has determined that years or even decades before a person might show symptoms, amyloid beta deposits can start to accumulate in the brain – a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. By the time we start seeing symptoms of dementia, some researchers think, it might already be too late to do much.
If that is indeed the case, finding ways to stop cognitive decline before symptoms surface could be a crucial development in Alzheimer’s treatment. One such research effort is currently going on in Colombia, where scientists are testing an amyloid-related drug in an extended family with a rare genetic mutation that leads to early-onset Alzheimer’s. That study is in people who are still considered cognitively healthy, so if the drug is able to prevent cognitive decline, it could be a breakthrough.