Thu Apr 4, 5:23 PM ET
By Toni Clarke and Ben Hirschler
NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) - An experimental drug derived from the saliva of the venomous Gila monster is one of a growing crop of new drugs that are being developed to improve memory and learning.
The bite of the Gila monster--a lizard native to the southwest United States and Mexico--can be deadly, but its saliva also contains a chemical that acts on a previously unknown receptor pathway in the brain that affects memory.
The findings were presented on Thursday at the 7th International Geneva/Springfield Symnposium on Advances in Alzheimer Therapy in Switzerland.
New York-based biotechnology company Axonyx Inc., which is developing the drug, Gilatide, plans to start human trials with it as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease (news - web sites) later this year.
A growing number of companies are probing the mechanisms of memory formation, hoping to find drugs that can help offset memory loss in patients with diseases ranging from Alzheimer's to depression, schizophrenia, stroke, Parkinson's and AIDS (news - web sites).
One of the leaders in developing memory-enhancing drugs is Memory Pharmaceuticals, a privately held US company founded by Eric Kandel, 72, a Columbia University researcher who won the Nobel Prize in 2000. Kandel began his experiments into memory with the Aplysia sea slug.
Memory Pharmaceuticals has discovered several compounds that show promise in counteracting memory loss in animals and is hoping to start testing at least one in humans within a year. Memory's aim is not to root out the cause of diseases such as Alzheimer's--the most common form of dementia--but to treat the symptom of memory loss.
"What we have are broader range drugs that would work in different diseases," said Tony Scullion, the company's chief executive.
The race to develop a memory-enhancing elixir is one that big pharmaceuticals companies are determined also to be a part of, with Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer Inc. hoping their Alzheimer's drugs Reminyl and Aricept may also prove effective as memory drugs.
But the small biotechnology companies are leading the way. Privately held Helicon Therapeutics, based in Farmingdale, New York and founded by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory researcher Timothy Tully, is hoping to enter its compounds into human trials within two years.
Tully's tests showed that fruit flies genetically engineered to produce more of a molecule known as CREB were able to remember a smell connected with an electric shock much longer than those genetically engineered to produce less CREB.
Cortex Pharmaceuticals Inc., is working on a class of compounds shown to increase the production in the brain of neurotrophin BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), a substance apparently deficient in Alzheimer's patients.
On Wednesday Cortex announced it has begun enrolling patients with mild cognitive impairment in a study to test its Ampakine compound. As many as 80% of patients with cognitive impairment go on to develop Alzheimer's over a five-year period, the company said.
"The mechanism of action is totally different from that of the acetylcholinesterase class of drugs, the only FDA (news - web sites)-approved treatment for Alzheimer's disease," said Vincent Simmon, chief executive of Cortex.
The company's Ampakine compounds work to increase the strength of signals
at connections between brain cells.
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