In early-stage laboratory experiments, the researchers identified the process which allows harmful clumps of protein to latch on to brain cells, causing them to die. They were able to interrupt this pathway using the purified extracts of EGCG from green tea and resveratrol from red wine.
The findings, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, offer potential new targets for developing drugs to treat Alzheimer's disease, which affects some 800,000 people in the UK alone, and for which there is currently no cure.
"This is an important step in increasing our understanding of the cause and progression of Alzheimer's disease," says lead researcher Professor Nigel Hooper of the University's Faculty of Biological Sciences. "It's a misconception that Alzheimer's is a natural part of ageing; it's a disease that we believe can ultimately be cured through finding new opportunities for drug targets like this."
Alzheimer's disease is characterised by a distinct build-up of amyloid protein in the brain, which clumps together to form toxic, sticky balls of varying shapes. These amyloid balls latch on to the surface of nerve cells in the brain by attaching to proteins on the cell surface called prions, causing the nerve cells to malfunction and eventually die.
"We wanted to investigate whether the precise shape of the amyloid balls is essential for them to attach to the prion receptors, like the way a baseball fits snugly into its glove," says co-author Dr Jo Rushworth. "And if so, we wanted to see if we could prevent the amyloid balls binding to prion by altering their shape, as this would stop the cells from dying."
The team formed amyloid balls in a test tube and added them to human and animal brain cells. Professor Hooper said: "When we added the extracts from red wine and green tea, which recent research has shown to re-shape amyloid proteins, the amyloid balls no longer harmed the nerve cells. We saw that this was because their shape was distorted, so they could no longer bind to prion and disrupt cell function.
"We also showed, for the first time, that when amyloid balls stick to prion, it triggers the production of even more amyloid, in a deadly vicious cycle," he added.
Professor Hooper says that the team's next steps are to understand exactly how the amyloid-prion interaction kills off neurons. "I'm certain that this will increase our understanding of Alzheimer's disease even further, with the potential to reveal yet more drug targets," he said.
Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer's Research UK, the UK's leading dementia research charity, which part-funded the study, said: "Understanding the causes of Alzheimer's is vital if we are to find a way of stopping the disease in its tracks. While these early-stage results should not be a signal for people to stock up on green tea and red wine, they could provide an important new lead in the search for new and effective treatments. With half a million people affected by Alzheimer's in the UK, we urgently need treatments that can halt the disease - that means it's crucial to invest in research to take results like these from the lab bench to the clinic."
The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust, Alzheimer's Research UK and the Medical Research Council.
Dave Westhead and colleagues in Experimental Haematology, Cancer Research UK (Jan 2015), £700,521
Sheena Radford, Mark Harris, Peter Stockley, Alan Berry, Alex O'Neill, Thomas Edwards, Adrian Goldman, Anastasia Zhuravleva, Wellcome Trust (Jan 2015), £443,015
Bill Kunin, EU (Jan 2015), £157,490
John Colyer, Leeds Teaching Hospitals Charitable Fund (Jan 2015), £40,000
Chris Hassall, Royal Society (Dec 2014), £14,500
Ryan Seipke, Royal Society (Nov 2014), £13,700
Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2014), £749,865
Ian Hope, Marie-Anne Shaw, BBSRC (Oct 2014), £396,565
Alison Ashcroft, Peter Stckley, Sheena Radford, Nic Stonehouse, David Brockwell, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Oct 2014), £340,937
Les Firbank, Joe Holden, BBSRC (Oct 2014), £210,302
Darren Tomlinson and colleagues in Chemistry and Pathology, anatomy and Tumour Biology, Dr Hadwen Trusy (Oct 2014), £194,475
Paul Knox, EU (Oct 2014), £167,229
Martin Stacey and colleagues in Medicine & Health, Pfizer (Oct 2014), £90,453
Darren Tomlinson and colleagues in Experimental Oncology, YCR (Oct 2014), £69,480
Andrew Macdonald, Jamel Mankouri, Kidney Research Fund UK (Oct 2014), £58,878
Mike McPherson and colleagues in Dentistry and Engineering, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2014), £58,437
Dave Westhead and colleagues in Experimental Haemotology, Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (Sep 2014), £281,424
Emmanuel Paci and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £636,759
Andrew Peel, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £371,598
Lars Jeuken, Stephen Evans, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £333,684
Lars Jeuken, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £313,463
Michelle Peckham, Mark Harris, Rao Sivaprasadarao, Eileen Ingham, Nic Stonehouse, Nikita Gamper, Wellcome Trust (Sep 2014), £192,763
Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Aug 2014), £355,253
Stuart Egginton, BHF (Aug 2014), £271,094
Darren Tomlinson, Mike McPherson, Technology Strategy Board (Aug 2014), £98,665
Peter Henderson, Leverhulme Trust (Aug 2014), £15,222
Mike McPherson (and colleagues in the School of Chemistry), EPSRC (Jul 2014), £819,880
Peter Stockley, Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Jul 2014), £455,787
Sheena Radford, Univesity of Michigan (Jul 2014), £138,452
Ryan Seipke, British Society Antimicrobial Chemistry (Jun 2014), £11,960
John Trinick, BHF (Jun 2014), £222,614
Chris West, Leverhulme Trust (Jun 2014), £181,241
Jon Lippiat, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (May 2014), £125,174
Christine Foyer, Royal Society (May 2014), £24,000