Alzheimer’s disease is the incurable brain condition that affects memory and cognition – thinking. Many are the heartbreaking stories I have heard from children whose aging parent no longer recognizes them. It becomes impossible to have a lengthy conversation because the elder with Alzheimer’s loses track of the dialog and can’t recall what has already been said.
Alzheimer’s disease afflicts 5.8 million Americans today, broken out into 5.6 million people age 65 and older and approximately 200,000 individuals under age 65 who have younger-onset Alzheimer’s. This number is expected to approach 14 million by the year 2050. Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S. with occurrences every 65 seconds. In the same amount of time, someone else in the country develops the disease.
Not only that but 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia (mental decline). The malady claims more deaths than breast and prostate cancers combined.
A vaccine for Alzheimer’s has eluded researchers for decades. But now, new hope may be on the horizon for people suffering from this type of dementia – and for their supportive families and friends.
In the fall of 2010, Mei Mei Hu was a management consultant for McKinsey in New York City, New York. Her mother, Chang Yi Wang, invited her for a Christmas visit in Shanghai. Speaking about their relationship, Mei Mei described Chang Yi as “very particular and exacting – which is part of her genius” and recalled what kept the daughter from following in her scientific mother’s footsteps:
“I remember coming back from school with a test score of 98 percent and all she said was – next time, kill those last two points.”
“I avoided science in school. I spent the rest of my life trying not to work with my parents,” remembered Hu, who pursued an economics degree at the University of Pennsylvania before attending law school. She has been employed mainly as a management consultant.
Chang Yi, for her part, is a leading immunologist and biochemist who holds two PhDs developed tests for HIV and Hepatitis C and performed innovative research to develop an HIV vaccine. She co-founded United Biomedical, a drug development company with offices and laboratories in the United States, Taiwan, and mainland China.
With United Biomedical facing financial troubles, Mei Mei helped her mother reorganize the company which split into third-party joint ventures to handle generic drugs, animal healthcare, and monoclonal antibodies businesses separately. United Neuroscience was born from this corporate restructuring.
United Neuroscience focused on developing an effective vaccine for Alzheimer’s. This research followed the principles of a new branch of immunology called endobody vaccines. Rather than prepare the body’s immune system to fight off “exogenous” diseases such as measles or flu which are caused by bacteria or viruses entering the blood, endobody vaccines prepare the immune system to support internal body parts that would otherwise be ignored.
Only four endobody vaccines have been approved for commercial sale: two for cancer and two for animal healthcare. Chang Yi developed one of these endobody vaccines in 2003.
United Biomedical had been developing a vaccine for Alzheimer’s which proved successful in tests on small mammals and monkeys. Mei Mei advised her mother to pour her time and energy into the newly formed United Neuroscience venture to perfect the Alzheimer’s vaccine. Chang Yi asked her daughter to become the corporate CEO.
In 1991, Chang Yi began working on an HIV vaccine which eventually led her to develop a triggering mechanism that releases antibodies to the Alzheimer’s protein into the bloodstream. The antibodies attract T cells that target and try to kill any protein with an antibody attached.
As Mei Mei explained simply:
“Your body has two tools to deal with infection: inflammation to trap the invader and cells that attack and destroy them…Chang Yi’s vaccines use molecules that are so small, they don’t trigger inflammation.”
Alzheimer’s researchers believe two rogue proteins, beta-amyloid, and tau, are responsible for causing the disease because the brains of people with Alzheimer’s have large amounts of both of them.
Healthy versions of these proteins nourish brain cells and ensure that vital chemicals travel freely between them. The blueprint for every protein in your body is held in your
Human DNA unwinds to allow long chains of amino acids to line up in the correct sequence to create needed proteins. Long, straight chains fold into compact blobs to operate properly. Damaged beta-amyloid can misfold into “sticky” clumps of tangled fibers (plaques) that accumulate around nerve cells, disrupting cell communication, metabolism, and repair.
Tau can also misfold into an abnormal clump with other tau molecules, forming threads that ultimately combine to form tangles inside neurons that block the flow of food.
Both proteins may damage brain cells and scientists are looking at the relationship between beta-amyloid and tau.
Chang Yi calls her vaccine UB-311. It “contains synthetic versions of amino acid chains that trigger antibodies to attack Alzheimer’s protein in the blood,” and clears away the tangled proteins without causing potentially-damaging inflammation.
In January 2019, United Neuroscience published the first results from a phase IIa clinical trial that tracked 42 human patients. Chang Yi talked enthusiastically about her team’s achievements:
“We were able to generate some antibodies in all patients, which is unusual for vaccines. We’re talking about almost a 100 percent response rate. So far, we have seen an improvement in three out of three measurements of cognitive performance for patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease.”
More testing is forthcoming to determine if UB-311 can help human cognition and memory in Alzheimer’s patients. But the absence of serious side effects is quite encouraging.
United Neuroscience is going forward with phase III trials for its landmark Alzheimer’s vaccine. Next up for the bioscience innovators: the UB-312 vaccine for Parkinson’s disease and another called targeting Tau.
The anti-Alzheimer’s vaccine can reportedly delay the onset of the disease by five years.