Note: Each issue of Dimensions features a contribution from one of the Alzheimer's groups in Washington. This article is reprinted with permission from the Alzheimer's Association, Western and Central Washington Chapters.
In 2000, the Alzheimer's vaccine AN-1792 had raised hopes of a surprising breakthrough in halting Alzheimer's disease. The Elan Corporation drug had stimulated immune systems of mice to attack amyloid plaques, one of the abnormalities in Alzheimer's brains. But when fifteen of the 360 human subjects in the Phase IIA trial suffered serious brain inflammation, the study was stopped in March 2001. Its failure raises questions: Is this research lost? What can we hope for? How soon will we have answers?
Research Gains Were Not Lost
The goal of the vaccine was important: to show if reducing beta amyloid would slow or halt decline in memory and thinking. Scientists are examining why some patients developed inflammation. A Canadian-German team recently found that a refined form of the vaccine worked in mice, with less likelihood of causing inflammation.
Hope? We've Come A Long Way Fast
Dr. Richard J. Hodes, Director of the National Institute on Aging, cautions, "As we search for effective preventive interventions and treatments for AD, it is becoming clear that, rather than seeking only a "magic bullet" that will, by itself, prevent or cure the disease, we may be able to identify a number of potential interventions that together can be used to reduce risk." He sums up progress to date:
How Soon Will We Have Answers?
Research funding is at a critical moment in time. Scientists are steadily unraveling the mystery of Alzheimer's: why brain cells die off, leaving nearly 5 million older Americans disabled and dependent. The number of American victims is projected to rise to 15 million by 2050; yet delaying the onset of the disease by as little as 5 years would halve this number and reduce the annual cost of Alzheimer's by $50 billion. However, research funding is being held at the modest level of $593 million for 2003. We need to convince lawmakers that Alzheimer's disease research is a priority. That is why the Alzheimer's Association is leading the nationwide Advocacy campaign at the federal appropriations level to provide $1 billion per year in research funding.
One Valuable Strategic Lesson Learned
When the Billion Dollar Campaign is finally won, what will be the most efficient way to use this money? Dr. Marilyn Albert, head of the Alzheimer's Association's national Medical/Scientific Advisory Council, recently enunciated an increasingly common three-phase approach that scientists are using to look at Alzheimer's in order to better target efforts and energies. Based on research to date, scientists are looking less at an overall cure than at specific targets during the overall disease process. They are doing this, in great part, to establish efficacious research goals that they can then work toward in the laboratory. Dr. Albert outlines these three phases and goals for research in this way: 1. Currently Normal (no symptoms, but at high risk) Goal - To prevent the disease from developing. 2. Early Stage Goal - To slow the progress of those diagnosed in early stage. 3. Moderate to Severe Alzheimer's Goal - To lessen symptoms of cognitive loss and behavioral disturbance.
These outcomes are what we hope we can accomplish in the next years. To find out how you can help with Advocacy, or to learn about the latest clinical trials and how you might participate, please contact the Alzheimer's Association Chapter Helpline at 800-848-7097.