New Alzheimer's theory gains NASA backing

By Mike Nagle

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Medicine

A controversial new theory on the origins of Alzheimer's has
divided opinion in the medical world, but if proved right could
'revolutionise' treatment.

Dr Shaohua Xu of Florida's Space Life Sciences Laboratory at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and of Florida Tech has earned a $150,000 grant from Space Florida and a $30,000 cash injection from NASA's Aerospace Medicine and Occupational Health Branch to test his theory. Conventional wisdom dictates that when tau protein joins together to form tangled fibres at the start of Alzheimer's, each tau molecule join to the fibre's tip. However, Xu has a different idea. "We find that it is a three-step process,"​ he said. "First, molecules of the tau protein cluster together into spheres, each almost the same size. Next, the spheres join together in linear chains like beads on a string. In the third stage the beads merge together to form a uniform filament identical to those found in the brains of patients with the disease."​ Using atomic force microscopy, Xu has been using purified protein to synthesis the fibres into their various forms. He first developed his theory over a decade ago. "Shaohua's theory is revolutionary; his evidence is overwhelming. The medical implications are beyond anything in my experience,"​ said advocate Dr Daniel Woodard at KSC, who was the first medical doctor to review Xu's work. "This could be the most important biomedical discovery ever made at Kennedy Space Center,"​ echoed NASA physician David Tipton, chief of the Aerospace Medicine and Environmental Health Branch at KSC. Once tau fibres accumulate, essential substances cannot move through the cell and it dies. This leads to onset of Alzheimer's disease. Additionally, Pamela Tronetti, medical director of the Parrish Senior Consultative Center, likened the potential discovery to one of the most famous in medical history. "If this theory is correct, it may very well have as great an impact on neurodegenerative disease as the discovery of germs had on infection,"​ she said. Explaining more about his theory, Xu said that that the process he and his team have observed closely resembles that of colloid formation - mixtures like milk of ink in which tiny particles are suspended in a fluid. "Our theory is based on colloid science,"​ he said. If his theory is correct, it may be possible to halt the disease with drugs that hinder the aggregation of the spherical colloidal particles into linear chains. Similar chemicals are already used to stabilize colloidal materials such as paints. The next step will be to test potential drugs that may be able to halt the formation of the filaments. Xu is the sole medical researcher at Florida's Space Life Sciences Lab. In the past he has conducted Mad Cow Disease research at the University of Chicago. His current work still has applications for Mad Cow Disease as well as Parkinson's Disease, both of which appear to have very similar mechanisms.

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