If no cure is found, Alzheimer’s will become a growing problem as the U.S. population ages.Earlier this summer, Charlton Heston, the actor who became famous playing the role of seemingly invincible characters, announced that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

In going public with his condition, Heston added his story to the example of President Ronald Reagan, in helping bring this devastating and incurable disease into the national spotlight. Alzheimer’s affects more than four million Americans and this number is expected to rise dramatically in coming years as the U.S. population ages.

A company that may have an inside track on coming up with a cure is Israel’s Mindset Biopharmaceuticals, with research and development headquarters in Jerusalem. The company has several promising technologies that are creating a stir in leading scientific and medical circles.

One of them is a treatment for Alzheimer’s now in development called Oxigon. Last year, the prestigious Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study, a consortium of American clinical investigators and academics chartered by the U.S. National Institute on Aging, chose Oxigon for clinical trial funding over numerous other compounds being developed by companies around the world.

Studies have shown that Oxigon combats Alzheimer’s in two ways. It is the most powerful known antioxidant, being 10,000 times more potent than vitamin E, and it stops beta-amyloid plaque from forming in the brain. Beta-amyloid plaque is the substance believed to lead to the onset of Alzheimer’s. Mindset hopes to begin an initial trial of the drug on human patients in early 2003.

Daniel Chain founded Mindset in Jerusalem in 1998. He became interested in Alzheimer’s drug research after conducting post-doctoral studies on the molecular basis of memory at Columbia University.

Initial funding for this research came from an inheritance he received from his father, Sir Ernst Chain, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945 for his work that contributed to the discovery of penicillin. The money used to found Mindset came from the cash award the elder Chain received for winning the Prize.

Ernst Chain pursued penicillin research for many years during a period in which many scientists remained skeptical about penicillin’s therapeutic potential. Daniel Chain has also been an innovator, being among the first drug developers to focus on beta-amyloid as a drug target for preventing Alzheimer’s. Mindset had a head start over many other companies who only later on began to work in what has become a widely accepted research direction.

One benefit of the early start was Mindset’s opportunity to obtain exclusive licenses for untapped technologies developed at New York University, the Mayo Medical Research Foundation and the University of South Florida.

Another Mindset product in development aimed at preventing Alzheimer’s disease is a vaccine known as Amyrex.

The search for an anti-Alzheimer’s vaccine reached a low point in March of this year when Elan Corp. a major pharmaceutical company, suddenly halted an advanced-stage clinical trial for a vaccine because several patients had developed dangerous side effects.

But in July Mindset rekindled hopes for the vaccine approach when the company reported findings showing that Amyrex could prevent Alzheimer’s without causing the type of side effects encountered by the Elan product. The first Amyrex trials on human patients are scheduled for 2004.

“In developing our vaccine, we took into account the toxicity problem encountered by Elan as well as the potential for an autoimmune reaction by the body,” Chain said.

Mindset has grown to a staff of 30 researchers and now has a subsidiary, MindGenix , in Albany, N.Y. The company obtained major funding of about $8 million in late 2001 from MPM Capital, one of the largest U.S. life science venture capital firms, and Clal Biotechnologies Industries, Israel’s largest life sciences investment fund. Mindset plans to supplement this with an additional $15 million from a fundraising campaign that’s now underway.