The toll of Alzheimer’s disease on patients, their families, and our society is devastating. Alzheimer’s robs people of their memories, their identities and ultimately their lives. And the cost to society can’t be ignored. According to a new study, “Medicines in Development for Alzheimer’s Disease,” without effective new drugs and other therapies that curtail or prevent the disease, the number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s is projected to increase from 5 million today to 13.5 million by 2050. Those patients are estimated to cost the health care system $1.08 trillion each year.
Fortunately, advances in Alzheimer’s drug development give cause for hope. One of the new drugs in development is Exebryl-1, a treatment designed by my company, Kirkland, WA-based Proteotech, to inhibit the formation and buildup of toxic protein deposits in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. This approach is a big step forward because it fights the cause, not the symptoms, of the disease. Exebryl-1 is one of 98 new medications that take an array of innovative approaches in fighting Alzheimer’s disease.
Now and in the near future, there are many encouraging developments in Alzheimer’s research. We’d like to highlight some of the trends in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease for 2011. The following list summarizes important advancements in Alzheimer’s disease understanding, diagnosis, treatments and preventative measures.
1. Understanding interactions: We have achieved a better appreciation of how two harmful proteins interact to cause Alzheimer’s disease. These two proteins, beta-amyloid and tau protein, have long been studied independently. The older opinion was that long-term accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain was the primary cause of interrupted communication between nerve cells and eventual cell death. The formation of tau protein tangles and its role in neuron cell death was thought to be significant but separate from that of beta-amyloid. But new research indicates that each of these proteins may work together to cause the cell death associated with Alzheimer’s. Ongoing research will zero in on this relationship, shedding more light on the complexity of the disease process and the best ways to counter it.
2. Refined diagnoses: Another important trend is the expansion and refinement of the diagnostic categories of Alzheimer’s disease. New studies are classifying patients into three primary groups: those with possible Alzheimer’s, those with probable Alzheimer’s and those with dementia other than Alzheimer’s. Why is this important? Until recently, if you were older and showing signs of dementia, you were usually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The problem is that other types of dementia, like those related to clogged arteries or Lewy Body dementia, require different treatments than Alzheimer’s patients. More precise classification of symptoms means better treatment and outcomes.
3. Better biomarkers: So, how do we get the right diagnosis? The answer is advanced biomarkers. For a long time, doctors and researchers would rely on cognitive measurements, like memory tests, to diagnose Alzheimer’s. These tests can be subjective and therefore imprecise. Biomarkers are a more accurate, physical diagnostic approach, and include genetic profiling, cerebrospinal fluid analysis as well as brain imaging from PET and MRI scans. Checking multiple biomarkers in a patient increases the accuracy of diagnosis. For example, while a gene called ApoE4 is associated with Alzheimer’s, not all people with the ApoE4 will get the disease. Using a multiple-gene profile, combined with a cerebrospinal fluid examination to detect the presence of beta-amyloid or tau proteins and brain volume studies improves the likelihood of a correct diagnosis.
4. Smarter tools and tactics for doctors: Alzheimer’s is deadly serious and doctors need the tools to diagnose and treat it as they would any other serious illness. In fact, what’s good for your heart in fighting heart disease, including a healthy diet and exercise routine, are the same things that will get more blood to the brain and potentially inhibit the onset of Alzheimer’s. Doctors are beginning to see the value of communicating such knowledge to patients, as well as testing for baseline cognitive function as part of an annual routine checkup.
5. Fighting the cause, not the effects: Perhaps the most important trend in Alzheimer’s therapy is the move away from treatments that relieve or delay symptoms in favor of treatments that target the causes of the disease itself. This new approach includes the use of “disease-modifying” drugs designed to combat the disease process by slowing or preventing the excessive accumulation of amyloid proteins or tau protein tangles in the brain. Other therapies in development might even restore cognitive function by removing plaques and tangles that have already formed.
The complexity of Alzheimer’s disease is as profound as the suffering it causes. But this fact must be as much a call to action as cause for despair. Researchers at Proteotech and other companies across America have taken this initiative to heart. That’s why we will continue to make progress and have reason for hope in our fight against this disease in 2011.
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