According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in nine Americans over 65 has Alzheimer’s. For those 85 or older, that number is one in three. Over five million Americans live with the disease and it is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Worldwide, over 47 million are afflicted with this irreversible brain disorder that shuts down our memories and our ability to think. It is a terrifying epidemic.
Dr. Eitan Okun heads the Paul E. Feder Alzheimer’s Research Lab at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. He has devoted his life’s work to finding a way to prevent the disease from taking hold of our minds. Recently, he has developed a vaccine that has shown great promise in laboratory conditions. He firmly believes that before long this preventative treatment will prove successful in protecting human adults from contracting this heartbreaking illness.
“Alzheimer’s isn’t caused by a virus,” he explains. “What actually causes it in most cases remains mostly unknown. The vaccine that I am working on targets the amyloid beta proteins that accumulate in the brain of people with Alzheimer’s. We’re trying to help the body to go into attack-mode against this protein. So far, it has proved effective in studies with mice.”
The next stage is testing this potentially life-changing vaccine on humans. Two tricky questions are: 1) Which people should be included in the test trails? 2) At what age group should the test vaccinations be considered?
After years of careful research, Dr. Okun has a few ideas as to where to begin.
“There are two subgroups made up of people who have higher odds of getting the disease,” he points out. “We have people who inherit the disease in their 50s. And then there is the group that gets Alzheimer most commonly and at the youngest age. These are people with Down Syndrome who often get Alzheimer’s in their 40s or even their 30s.”
According to Dr. Okun, moving on to human studies is a matter of two-to-three years.“These critical trials will determine whether the vaccine actually works in humans. Depending on the success rate and side effects from that testing, we will be able to know how much more time is needed to make the vaccine available on a global scale. I am convinced that a vaccination approach is the way to go with neurodegenerative diseases.”
In addition to his potentially groundbreaking vaccine, Dr. Okun is working on new ways to diagnose Alzheimer’s earlier in its progression and to do it more accurately. Using the latest in MRI testing, he aims to catch the earliest sign of amyloid proteins in the brain.
“My researchers and I have been seeking to construct a protein that could enter the bloodstream, make it through the blood-brain barrier, bind to the amyloids, and then be visible in an MRI scan,” he explains. “I am always looking for new angles to attack this disease from various angles. I have never been more optimistic that we will soon find a way to prevent it for current and future generations.”
Dr. Okun has been a “lifer” at Bar-Ilan, having earned his masters and doctorate in immunology there. His masters research analyzed how stress can affect a person’s immunity to various diseases. For his doctorate, he concentrated on the immune system — specifically how different modes of our immune systems respond to various threats. While his primary medical research today focuses on Alzheimer’s, he is also conducting studies in other important areas. In 2015, he received a grant from the Michael J. Fox Foundation to research to help look for Parkinson’s disease in an MRI.
Dr. Eitan Okun, 39, and his wife and five children live in Kibbutz Alumim, in the Negev.
Source: Bar-Illan University. For more information, visit AFBIU.Org or call 212-906-3900.