alzheimer's disease
A woman, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, holds the hand of a relative in a retirement house in Angervilliers, eastern France, March 18, 2011. AFP/Getty Images/Sebastien Bozon

A group of researchers believe they're closing in on a vaccine that would prevent Alzheimer's and dementia and perhaps even reverse the disease in the early stages, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The work by researchers at the Institute of Molecular Medicine, the University of California and Australia's Flinders University could bring a vaccine with the next five years and is a "breakthrough discovery," wrote The Australian newspaper.

There are some 7.5 million new cases of Alzheimer's — a degenerative disease that causes serious problems with memory, thinking ability and behavior — diagnosed around the world. About 5 million people in the U.S. suffer from the disease and one-in-three senior citizens suffer some form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

The researchers have said the potential vaccine would work by fixing issues with proteins that stop functioning properly in the brain and cause the disease. "[The proteins are] a bit like the car in your driveway," Flinders University medicine professor Nikolai Petrovsky told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "You need to remove them from the brain otherwise if you left broken down cars in your driveway eventually you couldn't get out. Essentially that's what happens in people who get Alzheimer's or dementia is they have lots of these broken down proteins in the brain."

Petrovsky described what is surely a complicated process is relatively simple terms, saying, "essentially what we have designed is a vaccine that makes the immune system produce antibodies and those antibodies act like tow trucks so they come to your driveway, they latch on to the breakdown protein or car and they pull it out of the driveway."

Petrovsky told The Australian that the main component left to figure out is if the vaccine can be made powerful enough to work as a preventative measure. "You could actually give it to everyone, say when they turn 50, a bit like we give all high-risk groups a flu shot, and thereby stop it in its tracks. You can immunize for it before it even starts," he told the newspaper.

Clinical trials on humans are expected to begin within the next few years, Petrovsky said.