Tackling Alzheimer's, One Trial at a Time
> 4/2/2007 1:55:10 PM

Alzheimer's disease, which already affects more than four million Americans and qualifies as one of the most expensive diseases in this country (behind heart disease and cancer), will only continue to grow over the coming decades. As our population ages, researchers predict that the number of Alzheimer's patients in this country alone will quadruple to 16 million by mid-century. More than 1/3 of the over-85 population currently suffers from the disease.

The list of available treatments runs from medications effective only in treating memory deficiencies to holistic standards like green and black teas and ginko boloba. While current medications do reportedly offer patients a heightened sense of mental clarity, all promises of an effective cure have proven false. But within the next few years, several major pharmaceutical companies are preparing to release experimental drugs that aim to directly combat the errant proteins whose accumulation on the brain facilitates the disease. Most recent research has focused on these amyloid beta proteins, a normal element of the healthy nervous system that results from the degradation of tissue but contributes to Alzheimer's and related dementia-like conditions via irregular distribution and concentration . The pharmaceutical manufacturers Elan and Wyeth, among others, have collaborated over the last several years on multiple efforts to further research and develop drugs to combat Alzheimer's. Their most important potential product, called bapineuzumab, contains antibodies designed to clear the brain of toxic amyloids. It is still in the middle of clinical trials along with other drugs that look to fight the disease earlier in its development by conditioning the immune system to reject the problem proteins and pre-empt their damaging buildup.

The drugmakers involved warn patients and investors not to expect miracles, but their research has already illuminated new directions for Alzheimer's research, and the future of Wyeth and Elan looks bright. In clinical trials, their drugs cleared A-beta from the brain cells of rodents, and with key adjustments may be able to work the same magic on humans. We already have drugs to effectively slow the progression of the cognitive damage that Alzheimer's wreaks on the brain. And a complete, preventative cure is unlikely to emerge from the current series of clinical trials. But when the FDA eventually approves a superior drug that can at least make inroads toward relieving the disorder as a whole, experts and consumers will remember the research being undertaken today.

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