It hasn’t been a good week for Alzheimer’s drug development. Pfizer, one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, announced that they would abandon the search for a drug for Alzheimer’s altogether. Intepirdine, a promising drug purchased by Axovant for millions of dollars just a few years ago, has failed to meet goals in several clinical trials and is headed for the trash, the company announced Tuesday. Another Alzheimer’s drug, idalopirdine, also failed to slow the progression of the disease, according to reports published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Still, just last week researchers found evidence that a diabetes drug may have an effect on Alzheimer’s patients. And researchers have long thought that the changes in the brain that happen with Alzheimer’s look similar to those that happen in other diseases, like stroke and diabetes. That’s why scientists from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute and MetroHealth are searching for a treatment for Alzheimer’s in what might seem like an unlikely place: already-existing, FDA-approved drugs.
The National Institute on Aging has awarded researchers a $2.8 million dollar grant for a five-year project that aims to pluck an Alzheimer’s treatment out of a database of around 2,600 existing drugs using a computer algorithm. The project is relying on a program called DrugPredict, the brain child of Rong Xu, Ph.D., principal investigator and associate professor of biomedical informatics at Case Western’s School of Medicine. The program connects drugs that likely candindates for Alzheimer’s disease by determining how they get into the brain and how they’ve performed in clinical settings in the past, and has already been successful repurposing pain meds for cancer drugs.
“We will use DrugPredict, but the scope of this project is much more ambitious,” Xu said. The team has plans to develop new algorithms specifically for Alzheimer’s and will focus on identifying drugs that can cross the blood-brain barrier, the brain’s security system that provides a stable environment between the brain and circulating blood, but also makes delivering drugs to the brain a tricky process.
“Finding drugs that can pass the blood-brain barrier is the holy grail for neurological drug discovery,” Xu said. “With this award, we will develop novel machine-learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to predict whether chemicals can pass the blood-brain barrier and whether they may be effective in treating Alzheimer’s disease.”
The algorithm will also analyze the medical records of 53 million patients around the world. Researchers then plan to test the most promising drugs on mice with Alzheimer’s disease. Because the drugs have already been approved, getting them into the hands of patients would be a much faster process.
“This approach allows us to rapidly identify innovative drug candidates that may work in real-world Alzheimer’s disease patients. We anticipate the findings could then be expeditiously translated into clinical trials,” said Xu.