In what some experts are calling the most important Alzheimer's research of the decade , scientists at 61 medical centers across the country and elsewhere have launched a groundbreaking study to test whether an experimental new medication can protect healthy older adults from the memory loss and brain damage caused by the disease.
"Our best chance of really changing the disease is to start treatment before people have symptoms," said lead researcher Reisa Sperling, professor in neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
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More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer 's, and without medical breakthroughs to prevent, slow or stop the disease, that number is predicted to rise to 13 million by 2025, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Treatments have failed miserably in reversing the damage Alzheimer's does to the brain, so researchers want to try medications on people in the earliest stages of the disease.
Researchers plan to scan the brains of thousands of healthy older volunteers to screen them for amyloid plaque, a sticky substance in the brain that is the primary biomarker of the disease. Although amyloid plaque is present in all those who have Alzheimer's, not everyone with plaque develops the disease. Scientists aren't sure whether the plaque causes the disease or is simply a by-product of it.
Alzheimer's researchers are looking for a drug that clears away excess amyloid before the first signs of Alzheimer 's appear, just as statins help clear plaque out of arteries for people with high cholesterol before the heart is damaged.
"You lower cholesterol before people get a heart attack, or you find cancer before people have symptoms, and I think it's going to be the same way in Alzheimer's disease," Sperling said.
Sperling and other researchers at 61 medical centers in the United States, Canada and Australia are recruiting volunteers ages 65 to 85 to have brain scans and take memory tests, to see if they fit the criteria for the Anti-Amyloid Treatment in Asymptomatic Alzheimer's study, dubbed A4 for short. The researchers will give 1,000 study subjects monthly infusions over three years of either the experimental medication called solanezumab or a placebo medication and then track patients' memory and amyloid levels. The $140 million study is funded by the National Institutes of Health, Eli Lilly and others, according to the Associated Press.
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On June 9, the first study subject, Peter Bristol, 70, started his IV infusion at Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. He won't know until the end of the study whether he is getting solanezumab or a placebo drug. Eli Lilly's solanezumab failed overall to help people with advanced Alzheimer's disease in previous trials but did show some benefit in those with mild cognitive impairment.
Although Bristol will need to drive an hour to the hospital from his home in Wakefield once a month for three years, the retired horticulturist says the time and energy he'll need to spend are worth the potential benefit. Volunteering for the study also meant Bristol found out that he has amyloid plaque, but he says he wanted to know.
"I'm striving toward my goal of supporting the research, and ultimately I'm supporting my children and grandchildren with this research," he said.
Photo: Butler Hospital, Providence, R.I.
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