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Issue 475, 21 January 2002

A breath of fresh air to Alzheimer's sufferers

Exciting discovery – Dr Chris Peers with his research team, (l-r) Ian Smith, John Boyle and Kim Green

A Leeds scientist researching the effects of low oxygen on the body believes he has identified a cause of Alzheimer's disease – low levels of oxygen reaching brain cells.

Physiologist Dr Chris Peers, of the Institute of Cardiovascular Research, was looking at how nerve cells, grown in culture in the laboratory, adapt to hypoxia, or low oxygen levels. He noticed that the hypoxic cells produced high levels of a protein called Amyloid-beta-peptide (AbP), also produced in large quantities by Alzheimer's patients. This protein is thought to kill the nerve cells in the brain, causing dementia.

Dr Peers' discovery explains for the first time why people with certain diseases which restrict oxygen, such as chronic pulmonary disorder, are prone to Alzheimer's, and offers a reason why more people who live at high altitude appear to suffer from the disease.

Similarly, patients who have suffered a stroke – which involves a deprivation of oxygen – are much more likely to suffer dementia. According to a recent US study, 15% of non-stroke sufferers aged 60-70 suffer dementia, whereas amongst stroke patients this rises to 50%.

Dr Peers explains: "AbP has been linked for some time with Alzheimer's disease, but this is the first time that oxygen deprivation has been linked to over-production of the protein. We know that AbP is formed from a bigger protein by two enzymes, and drug companies are already investing heavily in possible enzyme blockers.

"However, the body must create AbP for a reason, and to really find a way to prevent Alzheimer's, we need to find out why and what goes wrong to cause the disease. Our discovery adds a potentially important piece to this puzzle."

Dr Peers has published papers on his discovery in the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the Journal of Neurochemistry, and has gained funding from the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Alzheimer's Society to continue his research. He hopes to identify exactly how hypoxia causes a buildup of AbP, and what effect the protein has on normal cells to cause dementia.

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