Finding new uses for existing drugs

Mitacs Accelerate intern helps discover Prozac might help fight Alzheimer’s

During the summer of 2014, researchers at the University of Waterloo’s School of Pharmacy were looking into whether a group of drugs called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) — normally used as anti-depressants — could be used to treat Alzheimer’s. Gary Tin, who was finishing his Masters of Science in Pharmacy, specializing in the organic and synthetic development of drugs, was chosen to take part in the project, acting as a bridge between scientists at the university and industry partner Cyclica, a company specializing in using computers to predict all effects of new medicines.

The theory was that SSRIs might block a protein called Amyloid beta that builds-up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and is believed to cause damage,” says Gary. “We wanted to see if this was true, and how the SSRIs would work. With Cyclica’s help, we could get an idea of the effects of the drugs, and compare that data to what we’d discovered ourselves in the university lab.”

“Our approach,” says Stephen MacKinnon, a Structural Bioinformatician at Cyclica, “was to use our computers to run models of all of the drugs being studied, testing them against different kinds of proteins. We looked at them from a different perspective: not what they were designed to do, but rather what they can do.”

In the end, the team discovered one of the anti-depressants, Prozac, has the most potential of the SSRIs to block Amyloid beta and slow-down the progression of Alzheimer’s.

“It’s still in the very early stages,” says Gary, “but this research opens the doors to the possibility of more testing of antidepressants as a means of fighting Alzheimer’s. It’s also good for healthcare providers and drug companies to be able to look at repurposing existing drugs, instead of needing years to develop new ones.”

Stephen notes that Cyclica benefitted from participating in an Accelerate project as well.

“This research let us fine-tune our systems, and learn a lot about our how they work. Gary’s knowledge in organic chemistry was a good addition to our team, and he was able to help us with other projects. Bringing someone in through Mitacs gave us a glimpse of what we do from a different perspective.”

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan and Research Manitoba.

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities:


Mitacs empowers Canadian innovation through effective partnerships that deliver solutions to our most pressing problems. By driving economic growth and productivity, we create meaningful change to improve quality of life for all Canadians.