Progress being made toward Alzheimer's cure: Clock is ticking for aging Baby Boom population say experts at city forum

The Charleston Gazette, W.Va.

06-12-06

Jun. 10--Scientists better understand how Alzheimer's disease forms and who gets it, but as America's senior population multiplies, an actual cure appears frighteningly far off.

Such was the theme of a public forum in Charleston Friday featuring four of the nation's top minds in Alzheimer's disease and prevention.

Organized by the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute in Morgantown, the forum was intended to give the public a look at the science behind Alzheimer's research, said Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging and one of the featured speakers.

If people understand the effort and investment being poured into Alzheimer's research they will better grasp that Alzheimer's is a disease and not a natural part of aging, he told the Gazette. They may be more vigilant in protecting themselves and their family members.

"People need to understand that as a disease it has a different process than regular aging and therefore is a target of prevention and treatment," Hodes said. "That can only happen when people don't accept it as an inevitability."

Still, the incidence of Alzheimer's increases dramatically as a person ages from showing up in 3 percent of people age 65 to 74 compared to 47 percent of people 85 and over.

As people live longer and the Baby Boomer masses plow into their twilight years, the number of potential Alzheimer's cases is expected to triple by 2050 from around 4 million to around 15 million, Hodes said.

The financial impact on an already strained American health-care system and economy could result in $300 billion to $500 billion in health expenses and lost income, he told the Gazette. The current cost of Alzheimer's disease comes in at around $100 billion.

With these numbers bearing down on us, the scientific community cannot work fast enough, he said: "There are significant interventions, but they are woefully inadequate."

Short of a cure, the best route thus far is delaying the onset of the disease, according to Hodes. He said some studies suggest that delaying Alzheimer's onset by five years could halve the occurrence.

Scientists suspect a rather active protein known as beta amyloid promotes the development of Alzheimer's disease, John Hardy, chief of the NIA's neurogenics lab told the audience Friday.

Parts of the protein stick outside of a brain cell like a little hair where two types of enzymes then come along and begin tinkering with it, he said.

Certain brands of the alphabet soup of amino acids within the protein mutate during this microscopic horseplay and create a new, longer and less-soluble amyloid that builds up in the brain, Hardy said.

Research suggests people with Alzheimer's produce more amyloid in their brains and clots of amyloid are seen on brains infected with Alzheimer's, he added.

Confusing enough to sound like a good answer to the layman, but even that enormous amount of knowledge falls short, Hardy said.

"We have a skeleton of an understanding of the disease process now," he said. "There's still an enormous amount we don't know."

Enough is known that tests involving mice so far seem promising as far as preventing these clots from forming, said Dr. Samuel Gandy, director of the Farber Institute of Neurosciences at Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson University.

He mentioned three methods in particular: vaccines, anti-coagulants that bust up the clots and treatments that block the culprit enzymes in the first place. The only question is if what works in mice will work in humans, he said.

The Rockefeller Institute's role in finding an Alzheimer's cure -- aside from trying to organize clinical trials in West Virginia and supporting companies at the early stages of drug development -- is in studying memory, said Dr. Daniel Alkon, the Institute's scientific director.

Since Alzheimer's is the only "pure" form of memory loss, the Institute maps different levels of memory to better understand how medicine can go about preventing breakdown from Alzheimer's, Alkon said.

To contact staff writer Morgan Kelly, use e-mail or call 348-1254.