In a search for an Alzheimer's cure, a Michigan researcher is betting on a plant compound used for centuries in Eastern medicine — a mixture that has shown promise in protecting brain cells in lab mice.
Muraleedharan Nair, a natural products chemist at Michigan State University, hopes to begin clinical trials within the next year.
It's early science — certainly falling far short of a cure for Alzheimer's or, for that matter, even showing that it has any effect at all in humans.
But researchers for years have been frustrated and consumers desperate for anything that offers a glimmer of hope in the fight against the sixth leading cause of death in America. Alzheimer's also is only one of the top 10 causes of death for which there is no effective treatment.
Any breakthrough would lead to an "unbelievable savings" in heartache and health care costs, said Jim Richter, president of Nair's spinoff company, Natural Therapeutics.
"It's such a horrible disease, and such a burden not only on the families, but also financially on the whole health care system," he said.
Nair patented a botanical compound called withanamides — a compound he said may prevent the disease's progression, but it also might work to prevent it altogether.
The compound relies on an herb used in Eastern medicine for centuries. It's believed to work by neutralizing the damaging effects of beta amalyloid protein. This byproduct of this protein triggers a build-up of plaque that, in turn, kills cells and erases memories.
Earlier research suggested that withanamides, processed from the seeds of the Ashwagandha plant, are an antioxidant. In mouse studies, they were shown to protect cells against damaging effects of the beta amalyloid protein, Nair said.