A biotech firm in Washington recently announced an overwhelmingly positive response to compounds from a rain forest botanical for treating Alzheimer’s Disease, along with its intention to safeguard the very forests that provide such a remarkable pharmacopeia.
If you’ve ever cared for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, you’ve searched for hopeful research pointing to a possible cure for this debilitating 6th leading cause of death. Every day scientists test new drugs, diets and devices to prevent or halt the growth of the beta-amyloid plaques in the brain which lead to neurofibrillary tangles that gum it up and transform a loved one into a total stranger.
Most drugs attempt to manage the condition, but nothing really halts its progress, and side effects are troubling, until now.
In talking with Advana Science CEO Peter Leighton, I realized he just might have the hoped-for promise that millions were seeking — a natural compound that could disrupt the amyloid proteins and prevent them from binding. What’s more, nature was pulling off what drugs could not. The plant compound was so complex in its polysaccharide constituents that it could never be duplicated by any drug.
Even though Advana’s “miracle compound” was derived from a rain forest botanical, the search was on for the mechanism of action. After hundreds of studies, both in vitro and in vivo, a handful of molecules were isolated and tested, while a synthetic analog has been shaped into a separate pharmaceutical program. “I was skeptical at first but I was blown away by the data. We checked and rechecked, and it appeared that the transgenic mice (mice bred to get Alzheimer’s disease) which should have succumbed to the disease, once given the compound were lively and spry and young again,” explained Leighton (pictured in photo, below).
What had this CEO so excited was the fact that these mice not only had improved physical function, but they reversed cognitive decline as well. “They showed me the Morris Water Maze, the gold standard test to demonstrate cognitive function. The mice that had an 80 percent reduction in plaque load in the brain also had a near identical improvement in this spatial acquisition memory test,” explained Leighton. Several scientific papers confirm the link between beta amyloid load in the brain and memory loss.
To give proper credit, we have to back up in time. The actual discovery was made by Advana’s parent company, ProteoTech. The lead scientist, Alan Snow, was the first advocate of beta-amyloid as a key to Alzheimer’s disease. Snow presented his findings to the scientific world that as these plaques grow sticky and bind together, they form neurofibrillary tangles that squeeze and kill neurons and trigger a chronic inflammatory response. His early discovery led to more recent discoveries about amyloid build-up in the islet cells of the pancreas, hampering the production of insulin and triggering type 2 diabetes.
What actually pushes the beta-amyloid to kick in is still under investigation. Many researchers are looking at Alzheimer’s as a sort of “diabetes of the brain,” implying that poor diets (of refined foods and too much sugar) along with insufficient exercise could be the chief culprits. Additional research is examining some associated genetic predisposition. Leighton has a deep appreciation for this tack, and wants to someday explore his own theories about the degradation of the human food supply. But for now, he is on a mission to share the good news of this rain forest botanical as a natural agent for Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment.
However, there is always a hitch when a natural therapy starts looking too good. It has the potential of being declared a drug and all possibility of it being freely available to the public grinds to a halt. This happened with red rice yeast when it was proven to work the same as a statin drug in lowering cholesterol.
Likewise, when a compound from a rain forest botanical starts mounting impressive lab data that it may be able to halt or even reverse damage from amyloid plaques, the FDA could potentially declare the compound a drug rather than simply a dietary supplement. Therefore, there is always a fine line that has to be navigated. And Advana’s team came up with a brilliant solution.
Instead of selling the raw material compound to nutraceutical companies, Advana has opted for a third option, licensing the use of the compound to “companies of high integrity” and allowing them to purchase it from a third party. That sidestep allows Advana to follow its core strategy of investigating natural remedies for chronic ailments. They are able to communicate as a biotech company about the discovery as long as they don’t “promote” a product.
To the public, this may seem like a needless two-step, but it is an intelligent way for advances to proceed in botanical research, while pharmaceutical companies direct their attention to safeguarding patent protection of their major money-making drugs.
So while the transgenic mice continue to bounce around their treadmills like youngsters, and remember their way in and out of the maze, we should expect to see more breakthroughs from Advana Science. Deciphering the intricate cascade responsible for amyloid diseases such as Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes is Advana’s current strategy.
As Leighton said, “We are an oddity in the world of biotech. We recognize there is commercial value in utilizing natural botanical compounds, studying them using the most advanced methods, but we have opted to not sell them as raw materials. If we can share the intellectual property around these discoveries, we will allow reputable companies to bring the products to market.”
Still, not bad for a company mission: Clean up our gummed-up physiology and safeguard the rain forest for its remarkable pharmacopeia.
Dr Meg Jordan is a medical anthropologist and Professor and Chairman of the integrative Health Studies Department at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She can be reached at (415) 785-7987.