UPDATED: Elan chases a holy grail of Alzheimer's treatment: Prevention

After struggles to develop an effective remedy for Alzheimer's disease, Elan's ($ELN) support of research at Cambridge University could unlock targets for a drug that offers a preventive treatment for the memory-stealing disease and other illnesses involving misfolding proteins in the brain. 

While the findings are very early-stage, an investigator from Cambridge University has used nuclear resonance imaging and computer modeling to capture the misdeeds of a protein known as beta amyloid, which forms into clumps in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. And the research could yield targets and lead to drugs that act on the proteins at the point at which they are about to turn bad and form into clumps associated with the disease, according to a Bloomberg report.

Michele Vendruscolo, the Cambridge University biophysicist working with Elan, published his findings in Science. The study shows the minute steps in the process of protein malformation with unique detail, shining new light on potential openings for drugs to intercede before the plaques form. In concept, a drug that could prevent the hallmark plaques associated with Alzheimer's would be akin to the benefits of statins such as Pfizer's ($PFE) Lipitor, which acts on an enzyme linked with formation of heart attack-associated cholesterol. What's more, the imaging technique used in Vendruscolo's study could detail the activity of another bad-acting proteinsin Alzheimer's called tau, Bloomberg reporter Elizabeth Lopatto told me via Twitter.

"This is potentially a game changer for drug discovery," Dale Schenk, Elan's chief scientist, wrote in an email to Bloomberg. "We look forward in the future to applying the principles described in this work to other proteins."

Of course, this could all amount to nothing for patients. Theories about ways to combat Alzheimer's have often failed to hold true in clinical trials, as Elan and other companies such as Eli Lilly ($LLY) have learned with earlier programs that fell short. Yet with a dearth of effective drugs against the disease, which affects more than 5 million people in the U.S. alone, any drug with a relatively clean safety profile and a modicum of efficacy could bring incredible riches to its developers.  

Ireland-based Elan has a sizable stake in Alzheimer's drug development. After selling most of its rights to an antibody against the disease to a Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) unit, Elan retains a quarter of the rights to the potential blockbuster known as bapineuzumab, which J&J and partner Pfizer have in late-stage development. The Phase III data on the program are expected later this year, with the fate of the drug having potential multibillion-dollar implications for its owners.

- read the Bloomberg article

Correction: Michele Vendruscolo, a male professor at Cambridge University, was misidentified as a female in this report. We apologize for the error.