Listen to all episodes of the Researchers Under the Scope podcast.
It's a disease Dr. Ron Geyer (PhD) and Dr. Andrew Kirk (MD) want to tackle.
Right now, most pharmaceuticals target the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, without addressing its root cause. Most lose their effectiveness after three months.
Geyer, a biochemist and professor of pathology at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Medicine, said a novel protein could change that.
"They did a first clinical trial with this drug and they showed pretty exceptional efficacy," said Geyer.
NeuroEPO, first developed by researchers at the Center for Molecular Immunology in Cuba, stimulates red blood cells in the brain. It's a recombinant form of the naturally produced erythropoietin protein (EPO), which stops neuron cells from dying, promoting their growth and communication mechanisms.
During its first round of human trials in early-stage Alzheimer's disease patients, 82 per cent of those receiving the treatment saw stabilization in their cognitive function. For more than half receiving the drug, cognitive function improved.
Alzheimer's disease progressed and worsened for almost everyone receiving the placebo.
"We decided to move this forward and do a Phase Two trial in Canada," Geyer said.
Once the study is approved by Health Canada, trials will involve between 80 and 100 patients. Geyer said so far, everything is on track to begin testing NeuroEPO this summer.
The trick, he said, is delivering the drug directly to the brain.
"It breaks down in the blood quicker than normal EPO, so that's good in that it doesn't cause side effects," Geyer said.
He said his research group has teamed up with Rocket Science Health Inc., a company that's developed a way to deliver NeuroEPO through the nose to the brain.
Compared to a COVID-19 nasal swab, Geyer said the delivery mechanism for this drug is 'much more comfortable'.
Working with the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation, Geyer said his team is also expanding PET scans and neurological diagnostic tools for patients taking part in the study.
"We're hoping that with that, with those diagnostic assays, including MRI to measure the total brain volume, that the clinicians can use this information immediately as the trial starts to better diagnose their Alzheimer's patients, provide more clarity on the diagnosis, let them develop a treatment plan earlier."
Geyer said patients and doctors in Saskatchewan have already contacted his team, trying to sign up.
"We want to make it as broadly available as possible," he said.
Still, NeuroEPO will not be widely available, until a third-phase trial in the future which proves the drug's efficacy, shows no adverse effects, and involves at least 300-500 patients with Alzheimer's disease.
Geyer said his team is up to the challenge.
"It's almost impossible to find someone who doesn't know someone who has some form of dementia," said Geyer. "The ultimate goal is to keep people out of the hospital.”