Alzheimer’s research at USF in Tampa shows promise

The war against Alzheimer’s is often waged at home, with a loved one whose memory is declining. But for Chuanhai Cao Ph.D., whose 90-year-old mother has Alzheimer’s in Fushun, Liaoning China, the battle is on in his lab, at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Cao has been researching: the effectiveness of a low-dose THC and a potential Alzheimer’s vaccine to defeat the progressively debilitating disease that has touched his mother, Yulan Wang. 

His work with mice has shown benefits through both. 

“We gave low-dose THC to mice and discovered it can slow down memory decline,” says Cao, who believes combined therapies will bring breakthroughs. “Also, the vaccination to transgenic [genetically modified] mice can have memory protection.”

An assistant professor in USF’s College of Medicine Neurology, Cao has learned a low-dose THC -- the substance that gives a high to marijuana users – inhibits the aggregation of protein associated with Alzheimer’s. Without the high.

“Low-dose THC can prevent the toxic molecules buildup in the brain,” explains Cao, who has been researching the connection for about a decade.

The Potomac, MD-based India Globalization Capital Inc. recently secured a patent for the low-dose THC; it licensed rights from USF in 2017, about 10 months after USF applied for the patent. The company has finished phase 1 of a clinical trial and is looking for FDA approval for phase 2, says CEO Ram Mukunda. The treatment for patients with mild to advanced Alzheimer’s could potentially be available in five years, he adds. 

Considered a medical marijuana, the low-dose THC would have to be prescribed by a doctor.

Cao’s initial work on a potential vaccine has been licensed by Alzamend Neuro Inc., a company based at USF Connect on the Tampa campus. CEO Stephan Jackman says Alzamend is seeking the FDA approval required before a clinical trial, which may potentially occur next year. It would involve patients with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s.

“Once you prove that’s its efficacious in humans, then you can get compassionate use authorization,” Jackman explains.

The immunotherapy involves extracting blood from the patient, mixing it with the patented cocktail, and putting it back into the body.

“Basically it allows the patients’ own immune system to combat Alzheimer’s,” he says. “It stimulates the immune system to fight.”

Jackman describes Cao as the “brain behind” the therapy inspired by an earlier, failed vaccine that over-stimulated the immune system.

“He’s been working on this for over 15 years,” adds Jackman, who believes the vaccine is revolutionary and could foreseeably be used as a preventative to potentially cure Alzheimer’s.

“It’s the first time you’re going to have something like this being used with patients with Alzheimer’s,” he explains. “This is something if it works the way it did in mice.”

The immunotherapy could be available in as little as two or three years for compassionate use and for regular commercial use in four to five years, he says.

Meanwhile Wang’s battle against Alzheimer’s, which has lasted nearly 14 years, continues -- with detailed advice from her son Cao.

“She’s doing OK. She still can communicate to me,” he says.

What suggestions can he give to caregivers waging their own battles to help loved ones?

“My recommendation to other caregivers is melatonin [a hormone available as a supplement] in the evening and coffee or caffeine in the morning,” he says.
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Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune