A cancer drug could help protect against Alzheimer’s disease, new study finds

Published 13 February 2016

Research published today, Friday 12 February 2016, indicates that a cancer drug, bexarotene, could potentially be used to help protect against Alzheimer’s disease.

The international team of researchers, from the University of Cambridge, Lund University, and the University of Groningen, used the drug to target the first step in the chain reaction that leads to brain cell damage in Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers gave bexarotene to nematode worms that had been genetically programmed to develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. 

The drug was shown to interfere with the first steps in the process of amyloid plaque formation – the toxic clumps of protein that build up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. When given early enough, bexarotene was able to completely suppress the formation of amyloid plaques in the worms. 

Dr Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development at Alzheimer’s Society, said: 

'Previous studies looking at bexarotene, a cancer drug, to clear away amyloid plaques from the brain in Alzheimer’s disease have not been successful in people. This research in worms suggests that the drug should now be tested in the very early stages of Alzheimer's as it may stop amyloid plaques from forming in the first place.

'Bexarotene has many side effects when used to treat lymphoma, such as skin complaints, headaches, and sickness, and we would also need to be sure that it’s safe for people with Alzheimer’s to take. It’s early days for bexarotene and certainly too soon to tell whether it could be used in a similar preventative way to statins for heart disease.

  'We haven’t found any new drugs for dementia in over 10 years, and repurposing drugs that already work for other conditions could provide us with a shortcut to new dementia treatments. Alzheimer's Society's Drug Discovery Programme is currently funding a range of trials looking at repurposing drugs for other conditions, such as diabetes and arthritis.'

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