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A new study suggests that it may be possible to transmit Alzheimer's disease from one person to another. Scientist say this would occur only in highly unusual circumstances involving direct exposure to brain tissue. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Researchers performed autopsies on eight people who had died from a rare fatal brain disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob. It's similar to mad cow disease. The patients had contracted the disease from injections of human growth hormone they received more than 30 years ago. The growth hormone had been extracted from human pituitary glands, including at least one tainted with the protein that causes Creutzfeldt-Jakob. During a press conference about the study, John Collinge from the University College London says researchers wanted to know whether the patients' brains had signs of any other disease.
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JOHN COLLINGE: And what we found, very much to our surprise, is that four of them had really quite significant deposition of Alzheimer amyloid protein in their brains.
HAMILTON: Amyloid protein is what forms the sticky plaques that appear in the brains of people with Alzheimer's. But the people in the study had died too young to have so much Alzheimer's amyloid in their brains. So the researchers began looking for an explanation. And they concluded that the growth hormone must also have been tainted with a second rogue protein, one that caused amyloid to build up quickly. Collinge says the finding does not mean it's possible to catch Alzheimer's from someone who has the disease.
COLLINGE: This relates to a very special situation where people have been injected with, essentially, extracts of human tissue. In no way is this suggesting that Alzheimer's disease is, in any way, a contagious disease.
HAMILTON: And growth hormone no longer poses a risk because it hasn't been made from brain tissue since the 1980s. Lary Walker, a neuroscientist at Emory University, says in theory, the finding could have implications for surgeons who operate on people with Alzheimer's.
LARY WALKER: It's possible that contaminated surgical instruments might be able to transfer seeds to another patient in the next surgery.
HAMILTON: Walker says that's a remote possibility. He says the real importance of the new study is its finding that Alzheimer's has a lot in common with diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jakob in people and mad cow and scrapie in animals. They're known as prion diseases. And like Alzheimer's, they involve proteins that fold into abnormal shapes then form clusters, or seeds, that can spread throughout the brain.
WALKER: It reinforces, in a way, what many in the field have been thinking for a while, and that is that we need to prevent the accumulation of these proteins in the brain if we are to do anything substantive about Alzheimer's disease.
HAMILTON: Bill Rebeck, a neuroscientist at Georgetown University, says researchers have already identified some experimental drugs that target misfolded prion proteins. He says the new study suggests that similar drugs might keep Alzheimer's from progressing.
BILL REBECK: I think what this speaks about is the exciting idea that maybe we can prevent it from spreading from one region to another, thus halting the inevitable progression of symptoms.
HAMILTON: Rebeck says several human brain diseases involve misfolded proteins seeds, so an approach that worked for one of these diseases might work for all of them.
REBECK: The idea that we could be promoting processes that clear away any misfolded protein - in theory, that would be useful against prion diseases or Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease or Huntington's disease.
HAMILTON: The new study appears in the journal Nature. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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