New funding from the National Institutes of Health will be aimed at looking at promising drugs for the prevention of Alzheimer’s and novel ways to treat the disease. The grants, totaling about $45 million, are part of stepped-up national efforts to combat Alzheimer’s, which is expected to affect millions more aging baby-boomers in the coming decades.
The efforts mark a new direction in Alzheimer’s research by turning the focus from treatment to prevention. Much of the new research will be aimed at finding effective ways to prevent disease onset, with treatment starting well before memory loss and other symptoms become apparent. Currently, drugs for Alzheimer’s are generally given to those who already have symptoms. Though they may ease memory loss and thinking problems for a time, they do not stop the relentless downward progression of disease.
While the funding is a start, much more will be needed to stem the rising tide of Alzheimer’s in coming years. Total federal funding for Alzheimer’s is far less than it is for other major killers such as cancer and heart disease. (http://report.nih.gov/
Scientists believe that Alzheimer’s drugs may be more effective in the earliest stages of the disease, before damage to the brain becomes extensive and symptoms appear. Doctors have developed scans and other tests to detect the earliest brain changes of Alzheimer’s, some of which occur 10 to 20 years before memory loss and thinking problems become obvious.
“We know that Alzheimer’s-related brain changes take place years, even decades, before symptoms appear. That really may be the optimal window for drugs that delay progression or prevent the disease altogether,” said Dr. Richard Hodes, Director of the National Institute on Aging, part of the N.I.H. “The clinical trials getting under way with these funds will test treatments in symptom-free volunteers at risk for the disease, or those in the very earliest stages — where we hope we can make the biggest difference.”
One of the studies will look at late-onset Alzheimer’s, the kind that develops in people’s 60s, 70s, 80s or older and by far the most common form of the disease. Researchers will recruit people who do not have any symptoms of dementia but who are at high risk of the disease because they have inherited two copies of the APOE-E4 gene, the best-known risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer’s. People who carry two copies of the gene are at about 10 times increased risk of developing the disease and tend to get symptoms at an earlier age, often by their late-60s. About half of those who carry two copies of the gene would be expected to develop Alzheimer’s eventually.
Over the five-year course of the study, some participants will get a drug aimed at beta-amyloid, the toxic protein that builds up in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s. Others will get a look-alike dummy pill and serve as controls. They will be assessed regularly with thinking and memory tests, brain scans and spinal fluid tests to look for signs of Alzheimer’s.
Other research will look at the effects of various promising drugs, including gantenerumab and solanezumab, in people who are predicted to develop early-onset Alzheimer’s, the uncommon form of the disease that strikes people in their 50s or younger. It is hoped that some of these drugs may be effective, too, for prevention if given early in those at risk for late-onset Alzheimer’s.
The research will be carried out at multiple medical centers across the country and is expected to begin in 2015. Patients who wish to learn more can check out the government’s Clinical Trials site at www.clinicaltrials.gov
Source: National Institutes of Health.