Alzheimer’s disease is an incredibly complex illness affecting over 30 million people worldwide. While progress on the development of a cure may seem slow and fraught with setbacks, scientists maintain hope and diligence. In 2017, we know that every 68 seconds another person develops the disease. We also know that there are over 126 drugs in clinical development right now, all designed to slow, stop, or even reverse the progression of Alzheimer’s. A drug in clinical trial right now could potentially become available in a few years and change the landscape of Alzheimer’s treatment forever.
Gentleman with Alzheimer's waiting for the doctor.
Researchers continue to battle the clock daily in a quest every bit as relentless as the disease itself. Much of today’s research focuses on the brain and involves drugs that target the misfolded protein, beta-amyloid, which is partly responsible for neurodegeneration. Other current areas of drug-targeting include:
- Tau and other misfolded proteins
- Mitochondria and metabolic functions
- Neurotransmission and synapses
- Vascular Damage
Types of Studies Being Conducted
Investigations into Alzheimer’s and research efforts to fight it broadly fall into four categories: those aimed at diagnosing, treating, or preventing the disease, and those aimed at improving the quality of life of all who suffer from it.
- Diagnostic Studies
Currently, no single test can accurately diagnose Alzheimer’s. Diagnostic studies look to the future when successful treatments are available, and hope to discover a simple and accurate means of identifying early on those patients who require treatment. The holy grail would be a test that could identify at-risk individuals, pre-symptom, who could then seek treatment in time to prevent the full development of the disease.
- Treatment Studies
A new drug must pass three phases of clinical trials to gain approval from the USDA. Treatment studies help determine if a new drug treatment is better than no treatment at all or better than an existing drug. Treatment studies may explore the effectiveness of a drug at slowing or stopping the disease or at alleviating the symptoms. These studies also investigate changes to dosages of medication, as well as combinations of existing drugs.
- Prevention Studies
These studies look at lifestyle factors, nutrition, dietary supplements, and more to discover ways to stop Alzheimer’s before it begins. If favorable conditions exist in which the disease is likely to develop, these studies seek to isolate and remove those conditions in healthy but at-risk individuals.
Some of the current areas of focus for prevention include those related to smoking, education, hearing loss, and obesity. Researchers now know that people who smoke have a 79% higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s. Greater physical activity and a healthier diet have both been associated with a lower risk for developing the disease.
- Quality of Life Studies
These studies are often directed at training and education or other types of support that will make living with Alzheimer’s easier on all of those affected by it. Quality of life studies can involve not just patients, but caregivers, professionals, and family members as well. Studies which have been conducted on patients’ inability to recognize faces, for instance, fall in this category. Such studies seek to help those with the disease better recognize others and also help family and friends better understand the difficulty.
2017 Research and Advancements
Teams of scientists around the world discover more information about Alzheimer’s daily, and their efforts are gaining ground.
- Exploring Beta-Amyloid
At the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research, where scientists work under the direction of the Nobel Prize winning Paul Greengard, there are currently 3 exciting studies underway that have the potential to control or stop this disease. Two of these studies deal indirectly with beta-amyloid.
One involves the enzyme gamma secretase, which they’ve found makes beta-amyloid. It aims to slow down the rate of beta-amyloid production by inhibiting gamma secretase, thereby slowing or stopping the disease. The other study seeks to manipulate a protein on the surface of brain cells that can limit the damage done to a cell by beta-amyloid. Again, if successful, this could stop the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Advanced medical imaging machine used to capture brain scans.
Combination Drug AMX0035
In another treatment study, The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation has teamed up with the Alzheimer’s Association to fund a drug combination called AMX0035. The next trial for this drug is expected to begin in the first half of 2018 and will experiment with a combination of two drugs already approved by the FDA. The two drugs work in very different ways to keep brain cells functioning and alive, one by affecting genes and the other by acting on cell mitochondria.
Finding a Blood Biomarker
A second ADDF-funded study to watch is a diagnostic study taking place at the University of Calgary, which was funded in September. It will seek to identify a blood biomarker for the disease (the presence of misfolded proteins in blood) using advanced microscopic imaging and fluorescent dyes. If successful, they’ll be able to create a low-cost, non-invasive blood test to diagnose early-stage Alzheimer’s in individuals without symptoms.Finding a Blood Biomarker
Blood draw to detect Alzheimer's biomarkers.
Solanezumab as a Preventative drug
Five promising prevention trials were recently presented at the Clinical Trials in Alzheimer's Disease (CTAD) conference in November. One, called the A4 Study is scheduled to be complete in 2022. This study involves the beta-amyloid antibody, solanezumab. Solanezumab has failed in previous trials, but researchers are still hopeful that it can effectively prevent the disease at an earlier point in its progression (pre-symptom).
The Role of Neuroinflammation
In 2017, investigations into the role that neuroinflammation plays continue to expand. These investigations include studies on re-purposed anti-inflammatory drugs, which are already approved for use with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis. The ADDF describes this area of research as “an underfunded, high-risk target for Alzheimer’s drugs.” The risk in this case is due to the relatively uncharted territory, so this is certainly an area of great possibility to watch going forward.
Stay up to Date
Foundations like the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation provide wonderful resources online for keeping up with the latest advancements and breakthroughs. Here’s a shortlist of excellent newsfeeds and blogs where you’ll find information about new studies, breaking news, and the latest prevention strategies and lifestyle tips for brain health:
- Cognitive Vitality Blog
- Alzheimer’s Matters Blog
- Alzheimer’s & Dementia – the Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association
- Progress Reports from the Fisher Center
Doctor taking notes after meeting with Alzheimer's patient.
Join the Fight
None of these exciting explorations into new and better treatments for this disease would continue without funding for clinical trials and the human volunteers who make them possible.
If you’re interested in participating in a clinical trial, a great place to start is the Alzheimer’s Association’s online TrialMatch. TrialMatch is a free service provided by the Association to match an individual with a current clinical study or trial based on certain criteria. There are over 250 studies in the TrialMatch system. These include online studies and on site studies, and drug as well as non-drug studies. There are only 4 steps to take at the link provided above to find your match.
You’ll also find a registry of federally and privately supported clinical trials at ClinicalTrial.gov. This clinical trial search engine is provided by the FDA and NIH. Simply enter your location and the word “Alzheimer’s” to find all trials in your area.
Keep in mind that opportunities to donate to this critically important cause and support the tireless efforts of researchers in the field abound.
The following links are a terrific place to start:
- Donate to The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research
- Donate to The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation
- Donate to The Cure Alzheimer’s Fund
- Donate to The Alzheimer’s Association
Researcher taking a closer look at clinical trial lab cultures.
If you take a moment to imagine the changes ahead as scientists continue to make brilliant discoveries about this disease, the vision can be staggering. Reversing the deteriorating effects of plaque on the brain. Stopping the production of beta-amyloid and other misfolded proteins that destroy healthy cells.
The road to that vision is certainly arduous, and medical breakthroughs often come with medical setbacks. Still, with faith in this incredible science and continued funding, a cure for Alzheimer’s in the future seems more possible today than ever before.
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