OHSU Researchers Identify Relationship Between Alzheimer's Disease and Protein Levels

11/13/01    Portland, Ore.

Research may reveal new therapy for Alzheimer's disease

Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University have discovered a relationship between levels of a protein called lactoferrin in spinal fluid and the occurrence of Alzheimer's disease (AD). Researchers found that lactoferrin levels increase in Alzheimer's patients as the symptoms of the disease worsen. This occurrence leads researchers to believe lactoferrin increase may be the body's natural response to Alzheimer's. By boosting this response, physicians may be able to slow or stop the progression of the disease. OHSU's principal investigator for this study, Ann Blair, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in OHSU's School of Medicine, will present findings on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego. The research was conducted and funded through the Oregon Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Neurological Disorders (ORCCAMIND) at OHSU in collaboration with the OHSU Aging and Alzheimer's Disease Center.

"We believe lactoferrin may be able to counteract the effects of AD due to its iron-binding properties," explained Blair. "Past research has led us to believe that in AD patients, abnormal deposits in the brain called amyloid plaques use iron to generate toxins that degrade mental function. The use of lactoferrin may reduce this increase of iron and disrupt the disease process."

Lactoferrin is a natural component of the immune system and can be found in tissues throughout the body. It is also found in milk and is currently known to fight bacteria, fungi, viruses, and cancer. It is manufactured and marketed as a dietary supplement that can be taken orally.

The study was the first of its kind to measure lactoferrin levels in AD patients in the early stages of the disease. The scientists compared lactoferrin spinal fluid levels in 12 people with AD to levels in 17 people showing no signs of the disease. In the patients with AD, researchers noted a strong correlation between increased lactoferrin levels and decreased performance on a standard memory exam.

In the future, OHSU researchers will use this information to determine whether lactoferrin supplements derived from cow milk and taken orally can increase lactoferrin levels in the spinal fluid.

"If we're able to increase lactoferrin levels, then we can determine whether the protein has the ability to combat the effects of Alzheimer's disease," Blair said.