The drug, called J147, was developed by scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. So far, it has been tested only on mice. A study published in PLoS one, a journal of the Public Library of Science, showed that the drug improved memory in the test animals and prevented brain damage from the disease.
"J147 enhances memory in both normal and Alzheimer's mice and also protects the brain from the loss of synaptic connections," said David Schubert, the head of Salk's Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory, whose team developed the new drug. "No drugs on the market for Alzheimer's have both of these properties."
The drug has not been proven safe or effective on humans, but Salk researchers said it could have potential as an Alzheimer's treatment for people.
Up to 5.4 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. The Alzheimer's Association estimates the number will grow to more than 16 million by 2050. It causes steady, irreversible brain damage, erasing memories and the ability to think. As the disease advances, people can lose the ability to eat and talk. It is ultimately fatal.
Salk researchers said current Alzheimer's drugs only treat symptoms. J147, in contrast, is a potential cure for the disease.
It took Salk researchers 10 years to develop J147, Salk spokesman Andy Hoang said. They began by testing new synthetic compounds on brain cells grown in laboratory dishes. They were looking for drugs that protected the cells from the negative effects of aging.
By making repeated changes to a compound derived from curry powder that was developed to treat stroke and traumatic brain injury, they came up with a drug that was effective against Alzheimer's, Hoang said.
The researchers are currently having discussions with venture capitalists to fund clinical studies of J147 on human subjects, Hoang said. If they get funding, phase one studies could begin in one or two years.
The drug needs to go through human clinical trials, a process that could take years, before it would be made available to treat Alzheimer's sufferefs.
"Clinical trials do take a long time," said Marguerite Prior, a researcher for the project. "It could be eight to 10 years before it's a prescribed drug."