A new study with mice indicates the cancer drug bexarotene could have another important use: reversing Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages.

Bexarotene is designed to reduce levels of amyloid beta, the protein whose presence in the brain has been most closely linked to the development of Alzheimer’s.

In a new study, published in the journal Science, mice afflicted with their species’ version of Alzheimer’s who were treated with the medication saw their amyloid beta levels drop 25 percent within six hours — bringing with it a corresponding improvement in cognitive function.

“They did a lot of different tests of learning and memory and they saw an effect on every single one of them,” said Michael Sasner, a research scientist and associate director at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Study author Paige Cramer, a doctoral student in neuroscience at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, told LiveScience, “The data we provide here really suggest that Alzheimer’s could be, in the early stages, a reversible disease.”

Other amyloid beta-targeting drugs have been tested for Alzheimer’s treatment, but those trials were aimed at removing the plaques that amyloid beta can form in the brain, which has not shown any effect on the disease itself. Researchers now say that rather than the plaques, Alzheimer’s could be caused by the active, soluble form of the protein.

Cramer noted what works in mice may not work in people, but since bexarotene is already approved by the FDA to treat certain forms of skin cancer. She added it may be able to proceed through clinical trials faster than drugs not already proven safe for humans.

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