The development has come from the Medical Research Council, a U.K. government funded agency. What is interesting is that there are potential drug candidates. The drugs have, so far, only been tested on animals. However, the results from tests in mice are sufficiently encouraging for the scientists to begin discussing the possibility of human trials. Unlike previous drugs
that appear to prevent brain cell death the two drugs have passed toxicology tests and they do not appear to cause organ damage.
The drugs, called trazodone and dibenzoylmethane, work on the natural defense mechanisms built into brain cells. Here, where there is a viral infection the virus hijacks the brain cell and this triggers a build-up of viral proteins. The brain cell responds by closing down all protein production functions, which is a response designed to halt the spread of the virus.
In contrast to the viral infection most neurodegenerative diseases inside cells trigger the production of faulty proteins. From this the principle the researchers have managed to safely disrupt this process, leading to a drug that could treat a wide range of diseases. Neurodegenerative diseases include Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis and Huntington's, each of which affects the brain or the spinal cord.
To test out the candidate drugs the researchers successfully halted the progress of a prion disease in mice (which causes frontotemporal dementia). A prion is a piece of misfolded protein, resulting in an infectious agent composed entirely of protein material. Prions are suspected to be
the cause of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (known popularly as "mad cow disease").
From this, further studies showed the approach could halt a range of degenerative diseases. Speaking with the BBC, principal scientist Professor Giovanna Mallucci, from the MRC Toxicology Unit in Leicester said
: “It's really exciting.” With regard to the two drug candidates the academic added: “Both were very highly protective and prevented memory deficits, paralysis and dysfunction of brain cells."
In a research briefing, Dr Rob Buckle, Chief Science Officer at the MRC clarifies further
: “The two drugs identified remain experimental but they were shown to protect the mice even when given after the processes underlying neurodegeneration had become established.”