Recently discovered links between diabetes and dementia are giving Alzheimer’s researchers fresh clues in their search for a cure.
Dr. Gordon Glazner is working on one of the more promising clues. He’s a neurobiologist at the St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre in Winnipeg and an associate professor at the University of Manitoba.
In type 2 diabetes, he explains, our body’s insulin receptors are not sensitive to insulin. Under normal circumstances, the receptors act as a lock for which insulin is the key. Slip in the key, turn it, and the body’s cells can use sugar. Insulin receptors in the brain can also be insensitive. But instead of helping cells use sugar, insulin receptors in the brain trigger a chain reaction that churns out proteins. These proteins protect neurons and help them form new connections.
My grandfather died of Alzheimer’s disease. I vowed then that I would find a cure for it one day.
But Dr. Glazner points to his important discovery: the brain’s insulin receptors can also be unlocked by a protein known as an amyloid precursor protein (APP). The doctor is now studying mice with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease to see if injecting them with stem cells that produce APP might unlock their brain’s protective protein machinery.
“Our hypothesis is that APP will stimulate the insulin system and help the animals get better,” he explains adding that his research is funded by the Alzheimer Society Research Program.
In a twist of irony, APP can sometimes generate smaller proteins known as A-beta, which form brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Glazner is injecting the mice with stem cells that produce a type of APP that he believes will not generate A-beta. If he is right, the extra APP made by the stem cells will stop the mice from making their own APP. That’s a good thing because the mice’s own APP generates A-beta. If all goes well, the treatment will eventually be tested in humans, where it could have significant impact. Currently, 747,000 Canadians are living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. By 2031, 1.4 million Canadians will be affected.
“My grandfather died of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Glazner. “I vowed then that I would find a cure for it one day.”