Can an herbal medicine provide the key to defeating Alzheimer's?

In the 19th century, black cohosh was a popular treatment for a range of ailments, including sore throats, depression and menopause. But Xconomy explains how investigators at the Mayo Clinic found a molecule in black cohosh that can modify gamma secretase. And the biotech startup Satori Pharmaceuticals--which raised $15 million last week--thinks it can ultimately prove to be a safe and effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

As Xconomy's Arlene Weintraub explains, one of the big issues with experimental drugs that target secretases as a way to prevent the buildup of amyloid plaque in the brain is that secretases play a big role in human health. Eli Lilly ($LLY) found out the hard way that a sledgehammer approach could trigger disease, which was the kiss of death for that particular program.

Satori, however, takes a much more selective approach. Its molecule binds with gamma secretase, singling out the amyloid beta 42 for a full-body tackle and leaving the rest of the proteins free to promote good health. And that, executives say, is the key to preventing the buildup in plaque, stopping the disease before it takes hold of its victim. That thesis, says Chris Ehrlich, general partner at InterWest Partners, which invested in Satori early on, should quickly win over a pharma partner.

"Our hypothesis is if we can prove out pre-clinically that the molecule behaves, in multiple animal species, there will be partners who are interested before the drug ever sees a human being," Ehrlich tells Xconomy.

Currently, there's no consensus on what causes Alzheimer's or how it should be treated. And with two major Phase III studies under way at Lilly and Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), a number of companies have been thinking long and hard about the odds and expense of clinical progress and the megablockbuster market that awaits any company that can prove it has a drug that works.

- here's the article from Xconomy