This Animal Might Hold the Secret to Curing Autism and Alzheimer’s

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The alpaca is an amiable, fluffy furred mammal from the Andes, related to the llama. Alpacas are said to make good pets, but are raised primarily for their soft wool, which is turned into sweaters and other garments.

It turns out that the animals are good for something else, though — something that could save some lives and improve the quality of others — according to researchers at Nashville’s affluent Vanderbilt University.

The blood of alpacas contains unique antibodies from which scientists can extract compounds that can be used to identify and potentially regulate a gene called PPP2R5D. The gene has been linked to autism, Alzheimer’s disease, some cancers, and other ailments, including a rare genetic disorder called Jordan’s Syndrome, often misdiagnosed as autism.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. today. These are the states where Alzheimer’s is soaring.

The Vanderbilt team — professor of medicine Rich Breyer and associate professors of pharmacology Brian Wadzinski and Ben Spiller — have formed a company called Turkey Creek Biotechnology to further investigate the possibilities of alpaca antibodies. The company owns a herd of the animals outside of Waverly, west of Nashville, which it uses for research.

The structure of alpaca antibodies make them easy to harvest. “It takes only a small, quick sample from them to do our work,” according to Breyer.

A drug using alpaca antibodies has recently received FDA approval as a treatment for a blood disorder called thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura. The Vanderbilt team is currently focusing its efforts on Jordan’s Syndrome — but they believe that the possibilities go much further.

“Alpacas have an exceptionally unique immune system,” says Wadzinski. “Their antibodies can be used for research, diagnostic and therapeutic purposes….”

Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia. About 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, a number that is estimated to more than double to 14 million by 2050. This is how many people die from dementia in every state.

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