LITTLE ROCK — A potential new drug to prevent Alzheimer’s disease in people with the so-called Alzheimer’s gene has been discovered by a University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) research team led by Sue Griffin, Ph.D. .

An estimated 50-65% of people with Alzheimer’s disease have inherited the Alzheimer’s gene, Apolipoprotein E4 (APOEε4), from one or both parents. About 25% of people have one copy of APOEε4 and are three times as likely to develop the disease. Those with two copies (one from each parent) make up 2-3% of the population and are 12-15 times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s.


Griffin said her team appears to be the first with the new drug-related discoveries just as it was first in 2018 to show how APOEε4 prevented brain cells from disposing of their waste products, known as lysosomal autophagy.


Such disruption of autophagy in those who inherit APOEε4 is responsible for the formation of plaques and tangles in the brain that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. That groundbreaking discovery was published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia, the Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.


“Our series of discoveries related to APOEε4 and its detrimental role in Alzheimer’s pathogenesis are among the most impactful of my 50 years as a research scientist,” said Griffin, a pioneer in the study of neuroinflammation and co-founder of the Journal of Neuroinflammation, based at the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. “No other research team has found a potential drug specifically for blocking the harmful effects of inherited APOEε4.”


Griffin is the Alexa and William T. Dillard Chair in Geriatric Research and a distinguished faculty scholar in the College of Medicine and director of research at the Institute on Aging. She is also a professor in the college’s departments of Neurobiology & Developmental Sciences, Internal Medicine and Psychiatry. Notably, she is a winner of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award and inductee of the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.


Most Alzheimer’s research nationally has focused on treatments that can clear away the brain’s plaques and tangles associated with the disease, but that approach has yielded unimpressive results. Griffin notes that people with mild Alzheimer’s symptoms have already lost about half or more of the neurons responsible for memory and reasoning, which has led to her focus on prevention.


Griffin’s team is advancing its innovative work with a recent five-year, $2.35 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The team will conduct larger-scale preclinical research on the drug candidate, CBA2, as well as test other potential drug candidates.


“Our hope is that people who have one or two copies of APOEε4 will one day take the drug regularly throughout their life and significantly reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Griffin said.