Gila Monster Spit May Yield Alzheimer's Drug
By Toni Clarke and Ben Hirschler
NEW YORK/LONDON - 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 native lizard to the southwest
United States and Mexico -- can be deadly but its saliva also
contains a chemical which 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 Symposium on Advances in Alzheimer Therapy in
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 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.
There are 500 million people in the world's major markets with
diseases whose symptoms include memory loss, a market representing
billions of dollars, according to industry estimates. There are
millions more whose memory is impaired simply because of advancing
One of the leaders in developing memory-enhancing drugs is Memory
Pharmaceuticals, a privately held U.S. 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
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.
A company traded on the American Stock Exchange, 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
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 percent 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-approved treatment
for Alzheimer's disease," said Vincent Simmon, chief executive of
The company's Ampakine compounds work to increase the strength of
signals at connections between brain cells