Alzheimer's Disease
61-year-old Masahiko Sato, who has become a kind of "poster boy" for Japan's growing number of people with dementia, strolls during a cherry blossom viewing event at Omiya park in Omiya, north of Tokyo, Japan, March 27, 2016. Reuters/Issei Kato

Scientists have designed a new protein that will help them understand why nerve cells die in those with the degenerative Alzheimer’s disease and even help in finding an Alzheimer's cure. The University of Sussex scientists created the protein that closely resembles Amyloid-beta (Abeta) proteins in shape and size. The new protein contains two different amino acids (building blocks proteins are made of).

Abeta proteins in Alzheimer’s patients stick together to make amyloid fibrils. These in turn form clumps between neurons in the brain. Scientists believe that the build-up of these clumps causes brain cells to die. This leads to cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients.

Up to now, experts have not been able to know why the stickiness causes brain cells to die. They are also not sure if the Abeta protein sticky clumps have different effects compared to the individual proteins that don’t stick together.

According to the new study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, the new protein does not form sticky clumps or amyloid fibres. Unlike Abeta, it is not toxic to nerve cells. Understanding why and how Abeta causes nerve cell death in Alzheimer’s patients is important in finding a cure for the degenerative disease.

“Our study clearly shows that the aggregation of Abeta into bigger species is critical in its ability to kill cells. Stopping the protein aggregating in people with Alzheimer's could slow down the progression symptoms of the disease. We hope to work towards finding a strategy to do this in the lab and reverse the damaging effects of toxic Abeta,” Study lead Dr. Karen Marshall said in a statement.

The new protein will be a significant laboratory tool for scientists who want to study the causes and role Abeta plays in Alzheimer’s disease. Senior author of the study and co-director of the University of Sussex's Dementia Research Group, professor Louise Serpell, described the new research as exciting and “that will contribute to research to uncover the causes for Alzheimer's disease and enable tangible progress to be made towards finding targets for therapy.”

This new laboratory tool may be made available to the Alzheimer’s research community in the near future.