The federal government revealed this week that it is moving quickly to test a potentially revolutionary new anti-Alzheimer's drug, the first treatment designed to prevent the aging-related brain disease from developing in people genetically predisposed to it.
Kathleen Sebelius, the Obama administration's secretary for Health and Human Services, announced that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will be moving rapidly to test Crenezumab, a drug that attacks amyloid plaques, the fragments of abnormal protein that accumulate in the brain as Alzheimer's progresses. Although the buildup of amyloid during the disease is not yet completely understood, many scientists now believe that the process kills brain cells by interfering with their ability to use oxygen, and is the root cause of the degenerating of cognitive and memory abilities associated with the disease.
USA Today reports that the five-year study will focus on about 300 members of a family in Medellin, Colombia, who have been shown to have a strong genetic predisposition toward the more rapid, early-onset variety of Alzheimer's. The subjects, all in their thirties, so far have not developed symptoms. They will be given the drug in hopes that it will stave off the decrease in mental function typically seen in dementia patients.
In this CBS News interview, Dr. Eric Reiman, executive director of Banner Alzheimer's Institute and the lead researcher in the Crenezumab study, says the study marks the first time researchers have been able to evaluate a promising treatment in people who have not yet begun to show effects of the disease. "Before the disorder ravages the brain, [that's] when these treatments have their best chance of working," he explains. "[There's] no guarantee these treatments will work, but we have a shot. We're very excited about that."
In addition to the Crenezumab study, NIH officials also announced a trial of another promising anti-Alzheimer's therapy, a nasal spray that provides insulin to the brain. Previous research (pdf) by University of Washington psychiatry researcher Suzanne Craft and colleagues suggests that insulin treatments help brain cells in Alzheimer's patients remain functioning by helping to boost the supply of glucose, which feeds the cells.
"The preliminary trial was promising," Craft tells USA Today. "Memory improved, and the caregivers' perceptions of their loved ones' functional skills were encouraging, as well."
The Crenezumab study will cost $100 million, about $16 million of which will come from the federal government, with the rest provided by private industry. That funding, along with the $7.9 million that the U.S. is providing for the insulin study, are part of the new National Alzheimer's Project Act -- signed into law last year by President Obama -- to conquer the disease by 2025. Toward that end, the administration reassigned $50 million in funding from the NIH budget, shifting the money to studies deemed too promising to wait, The New York Times reports.
While those two studies made headlines this week, other research efforts to find Alzheimer's treatments are proceeding, as well. Here's a University of California-San Diego School of Medicine announcement issued Tuesday about several new clinical trials of Alzheimer's treatments. One is a planned national study to examine the effects of resveratrol, a compound found in the skin of red grapes and other foods, on patients with mild to moderate dementia from Alzheimer's. Some studies already suggest that the chemical may prevent diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, in addition to staving off memory loss. Also in the pipeline is additional research on a second anti-amyloid drug, Gantenerumab.
According to an Alzheimer's Association fact sheet, Alzheimer's Disease affects about 5.4 million Americans and is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S.