The federal government announced on Wednesday its biggest grant yet to test a drug for Alzheimer’s on people who are currently healthy but are at great risk for the most common form of this disease. This is a broad change in focus for research; going from treating to preventing.
This $33.2 million grant comes after many years of failed trials on people who have already been diagnosed with dementia. Instead of trying to harness it once a patient already has it they want to shift the focus on preventing it in people who are the most susceptible to develop it. The drugs that have been used previously in tests have consistently proven to be ineffective once the symptoms have blossomed.
Using scientific advances researchers are now able to identify people who are at risk for the disease way before the symptoms materialize. Some people have genes that cause them to have predisposition to Alzheimer’s. Predisposition is the tendency to a condition in life generally based on one’s genetics and environment. Genetics are extremely powerful but often once recognized they can be strategically addressed.
The idea with the new grant is to approach Alzheimer’s strategically; similar to the methods used for other conditions such as heart disease. Program director for Alzheimer’s disease clinical trials, Laurie Ryan, said the team will look at people who are considered high risk just as they would with people who have high cholesterol. They attack the high cholesterol issues before it transitions into cardiovascular disease.
Ryan’s team, at the National Institutes of Health, believes that if an intervention takes place before the disease develops they can possibly prevent or at least delay the disease. The drug that will be used in the trial has not yet been identified but it will be designed to attack a protein called amyloid; this is a protein that accrues in plaques within the brains of people who already have Alzheimer’s.
The $33.2 million grant will help pay for a clinical trial which will test a treatment on people who are at great risk for Alzheimer’s but have no symptoms as of yet. The focus of the test is directed towards late onset Alzheimer’s. The people being tested are between 60 to 75-years-old and have two copies of the ApoE4 gene that is known to largely increase the risk of getting the disease as people get older.
All of the participants in the trial will have to possess two copies of the ApoE4 gene; having inherited it from both parents. Studies have shown that at least half the people with two copies of this gene will develop Alzheimer’s. People with only one copy of the gene have a 25 percent chance and those with no copies of the gene have only a 10 percent.
Those that have two copies of the gene develop symptoms much earlier than people with one or no traces of the gene. Generally around the age of 68 people with two copies will already have developed symptoms while people with one copy won’t show signs until years later. There are only about three percent of the population that has two ApoE4 genes and closer to 25 percent have only one copy.
There are about 5 million Americans that suffer from this deadly disease. Many people think that the disease is a condition only connected with loss of memory and other cognitive decline but it is actually way more complex and serious than that. Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in Americans.
As the disease progresses and the individual loses their memory, mental and physical functions these losses ultimately lead to death. Once the disease begins there are medications that may slow the process but they haven’t found a way to reverse it. With these statistics federal health officials consider the disease a priority.
Director of the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Center, Dr. Ronald Petersen, said this doesn’t mean that they will abandon people who have contracted the disease and need treatment. They are just looking at it from a general health perspective and this is the way to go in order to stop people from developing the disease.
The $33.2 million grant announced on Wednesday is the most significant sign yet of the shift in focus for Alzheimer’s research. It will join several other grants for Alzheimer’s prevention studies and hopefully will be the start of a decline in this deadly disease known as Alzheimer’s.
By: Cherese Jackson (Virginia)