ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan lost a night of sleep on Friday reading Lisa Genova’s novel Still Alice (Simon & Schuster, 2009), which depicts the story of a Harvard professor who at age 50 is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. After reading such a book, Dr. Whelan says, you cannot help but become interested in Alzheimer’s research, which happened to have made the front page of Saturday’s New York Times. The most recent research into the neurodegenerative disease focuses on the hypothesis that it can be stopped or slowed by blocking or reducing the accumulation of a protein fragment called amyloid beta, which can form plaques in the brain.
While pharmaceutical companies are eagerly recruiting early Alzheimer’s patients to test their amyloid beta-blocking drugs, the FDA probably will not approve such a treatment unless the drug can be shown to not only remove the plaque but also improve patients’ memory and reasoning skills when compared with untreated patients. Because Alzheimer’s can take well over a decade to develop, such standards can render clinical trials especially expensive for the drug companies.
“There’s a lot of human effort being put into this research, and more funding is needed because of the huge toll of Alzheimer’s disease, both financial and emotional, on not only patients, but also family members, and health care practitioners. And with the baby boomers aging, this problem will only become more prevalent,” says Dr. Whelan.
While hopeful for an effective Alzheimer’s disease therapy, ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross does not consider the FDA’s position to be unreasonable. “The incidence of Alzheimer’s disease is growing, but are we going to put millions of patients on a drug that we know helps brain scans but does not necessarily treat or prevent the disease?”