Cancer drug could prevent Alzheimer's and dementia as scientists announce major breakthrough
Scientists tonight hailed a major breakthrough in the war on dementia after discovering a cancer drug can prevent the disease.
The stunning development could pave the way for millions of Brits to be given "neurostatins" to slash their risk of Alzheimer's as they get older.
University of Cambridge researchers hope their findings will enable GPs to offer the drug like statins are prescribed to prevent heart problems.
Around 17 million adults - two in every five - are already eligible for cholesterol-busting statins.
And experts said similar numbers could be offered pills to protect against dementia, after finding a cancer treatment can halt the development of the disease.
Incredibly, they claim all Brits over the age of 30 could benefit.
The symptoms of Alzheimer's are caused by clumps of deformed proteins called amyloid in the brain.
In pioneering lab tests, scientists found bexarotene - a drug already used to treat lymphoma - stopped the build-up of these deadly deposits.
They dubbed the therapy a "neurostatin" and said future widespread use could help slash dementia cases.
Lead researcher Prof Michele Vendruscolo, of the University of Cambridge, said: "It is a powerful first step. The study shows it possible to have a statin-type approach to neurodegenerative diseases.
"The hope is to have for Alzheimer's the same type of drugs that statins are for heart disease. That is the ambition."
He added: "This in terms of an approach for Alzheimer's disease would be the equivalent of what statins do for heart conditions. So you would take them well in advance of developing the condition to reduce your risk.
"The dream would be to find a compound which is cheap and safe and therefore can be given early to everybody."
People would start taking "neurostatins" long before they were likely to develop symptoms of dementia, even as early as their 30s.
In practice the drugs would probably be directed towards individuals deemed most at risk.
More than 850,000 Brits have dementia. There is currently no cure.
The discovery of the drug's benefits is seen as a significant breakthrough because it could lead to drastically reduced numbers of people developing the disease in the first place.
Over the next 35 years, the number of people with Alzheimer's disease is predicted to rocket from 40 million to 130 million.
Experts are agreed that the only way of realistically stopping this dramatic rise is through preventive measures.
Treating dementia only after symptoms have already developed could overwhelm healthcare systems around the world.
Bexarotene - already approved as an anti-cancer drug - "successfully targets the first step in the toxic chain reaction that leads to Alzheimer's disease", researchers reported.
It suggests it could be used as a preventative treatment "to lower the risk of developing the neurodegenerative condition", they added.
The findings were revealed in journal Science Advances, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Its annual meeting - the world's biggest science conference - is taking place this week in Washington DC.
Anaylisis: 'A promising breakthrough bit no miracle cure yet'
Dr Rosa Sancho, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK
We know that the accumulation of amyloid is a hallmark feature of Alzheimer's and that drugs to halt this build-up could help protect nerve cells from damage and death.
A recent clinical trial of bexarotene in people with Alzheimer's was not successful, but this new work in worms suggests the drug may need to be given very early in the disease.
We will now need to see whether this new preventative approach could halt the earliest biological events in Alzheimer's and keep damage at bay in further animal and human studies.
Bexarotene hit the headlines in 2012 after a study in mice suggested the drug could clear amyloid from the brain, but further studies to reproduce this finding have been mixed.
This early research in worms suggests that bexarotene could act earlier in the process to interfere with amyloid build-up - but it is too soon to conclude that the drug could be used as a way to prevent Alzheimer's and whether this would be a safe approach in healthy people.
Bexarotene is the subject of a lot of scientific interest as researchers seek to understand why studies have yielded differing results and it's important that scientists fully examine how this drug works to inform any future clinical trials in Alzheimer's.
We urgently need new treatments for Alzheimer's and other causes of dementia, but we know there are lifestyle changes that could help reduce dementia risk.
What's good for your heart is good for your head and eating a healthy diet, keeping mentally and physically active, not smoking and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol in check, can all help keep our brains healthy as we age.
We're committed to finding effective treatments for the 850,000 people in the country living with dementia.
Our £30million Drug Discovery Alliance will take the most promising ideas and accelerate the hunt for new medicines in the clinic. We know that increased investment in dementia research is the only way to tackle this huge medical challenge.