A Natural Collaboration to Fight Alzheimer's

Dr. Amal Kaddoumi in her lab Dr. Amal Kaddoumi in her lab at the Pharmaceutical Research Building.

February 22, 2018

By Matt Crouch

AUBURN, Alabama – What would you say if told a preventative measure to being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia is sitting in your kitchen pantry? According to Auburn University Harrison School of Pharmacy researcher Dr. Amal Kaddoumi, that could certainly be the case.

Kaddoumi is leading a team that includes fellow Department of Drug Discovery and Development faculty members Dr. Miranda Reed and Dr. Peter Panizzi in an investigation of oleocanthal, a molecule that appears naturally in extra-virgin olive oil, as a novel preventative treatment for such diseases.

Kaddoumi, whose specialty areas include neuropharmacology and brain research, has received a R21 grant from the National Institutes of Health of more than $400,000 to study oleocanthal and the therapeutic possibilities it has related to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

A molecule isolated from extra-virgin olive oil, oleocanthal is a potent antioxidant and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory natural product. Somewhat similar to ibuprofen, her studies on oleocanthal and oleocanthal-rich extra-virgin olive oil show the compound is highly effective against Alzheimer’s-related behaviors.

“We are very excited about our findings with oleocanthal, which demonstrated several positive effects against Alzheimer’s in mice that express the disease, such as enhancing the blood-brain barrier function and reducing the formation of amyloid-beta plaques and neuroinflammation, all of which are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s,” said Kaddoumi. “We are optimistic about the impact of oleocanthal on reducing the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, a stage that precedes Alzheimer’s, and on reducing the progression from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s.  As an outcome of this project, we hope the findings will support advancing the therapeutic development of oleocanthal in clinical trials.”

Dr. Miranda Reed with a plunger in her lab Dr. Miranda Reed in her lab at the Pharmaceutical Research Building.

A truly multidisciplinary effort, the three primary investigators in this project come from very different backgrounds. Reed specializes in psychology, particularly in memory loss and is able to evaluate the effect of oleocanthal on working memory, spatial memory and learning abilities, which are usually impaired in Alzheimer’s. Panizzi brings experience in molecular imaging, allowing the group to assess the effect of oleocanthal on the blood-brain barrier function and Alzheimer’s disease progression using the state-of-the-art Multi-Spectral Optoacoustic Tomography (MSOT) system.

“We have a multidisciplinary team with expertise in neurologic disorders, behavioral testing, molecular imaging and pre-clinical drug development for AD therapeutics,” said Kaddoumi. “Their work is essential to accomplish the project objectives.”

All three faculty members are housed in the new Pharmaceutical Research Building. Being in such close proximity in a state-of-the-art setting is allowing for more collaboration on projects such as this.

The behavioral testing and imaging is where Reed and Panizzi come in to play as the pair draws from their specific areas to confirm the benefits of oleocanthal.

“My primary role in the project is to assess the efficacy of orally administered oleocanthal to improve learning and memory deficits,” said Reed. “It is important that we confirm that oleocanthal’s ability to improve cerebral blood flow and blood brain barrier integrity, as demonstrated by Dr. Panizzi’s use of Multi-Spectral Optoacoustic Tomography (MSOT), has memory improvement similar to what would be needed in a clinical trial to demonstrate efficacy.”

“Being housed in a single building, where the primary goal of each investigator is to obtain extramural funding, has greatly facilitated our work and created an atmosphere of innovation,” said Reed.

Alzheimer’s affects more than 30 million people globally, including more than five million people in the United States that are living with the disease. That number is expected to increase to 16 million in 2050.

With the disease affecting such a large part of the population, Kaddoumi believes it is important to identify ways people can reduce the risk of developing the disease. One area she has identified as a factor is diet with clinical studies suggesting that adherence to Mediterranean diet improves cognitive function and slows the progression of Alzheimer’s. One major component of a Mediterranean diet is extra-virgin olive oil.

“According to our findings with extra-virgin olive oil, this observed positive effect could be attributed to the oleocanthal compound, which suggests the consumption of extra-virgin olive oil could be beneficial to protect memory and learning ability,” said Kaddoumi. “As a therapeutic approach, we are working on the development of oleocanthal as a therapeutic molecule to prevent, treat, and/or hold the progression of Alzheimer’s.”

Using these therapeutics to strengthen the blood-brain barrier can be key to helping those with neurodegenerative disorders. The team hopes their work leads to clinical trials and a new therapy for treating these disorders.

“Therapeutics that target the blood-brain barrier may be beneficial in multiple neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral amyloid angiopathy, and vascular dementia,” said Reed. “Studies have demonstrated oleocanthal to be a novel molecule with neuroprotective effects in mouse models. Outcomes of this work will support and advance therapeutic development of oleocanthal toward clinical trials.”


About the Harrison School of Pharmacy

Auburn University’s Harrison School of Pharmacy is ranked among the top 20 percent of all pharmacy schools in the United States, according to U.S. News & World Report. Fully accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE), the School offers doctoral degrees in pharmacy (Pharm.D.) and pharmaceutical sciences (Ph.D.) while also offering a master’s in pharmaceutical sciences. For more information about the School, please call 334.844.8348 or visit http://pharmacy.auburn.edu.

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Last Updated: March 6, 2018