The testing of new drugs designed to prevent Alzheimer‘s disease will be part of a $45 million effort aimed at finding effective interventions for the degenerative brain disease, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced this week.
“As many as 5 million Americans face the challenge of Alzheimer’s disease, which robs them of their memories, their independence, and ultimately, their lives,” Dr. Francis Collins, NIH director, said in a news release announcing the effort, “we are determined, even in a time of constrained fiscal resources, to capitalize on exciting scientific opportunities to advance understanding of Alzheimer’s biology and find effective therapies as quickly as possible.”
The money will fund clinical trials of the drugs to determine if they can help stop the progression of Alzheimer’s through drug treatment and to specify the best patients for such therapy.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, African-Americans have a higher rate of vascular disease (diseases involving blood vessels, including heart attack and stroke) – one of the suspected risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease.
Further, there is some research that indicates that the management of cardiovascular risk factors such as high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, obesity and physical inactivity, may help avoid or postpone the onset of cognitive decline.
“We know that Alzheimer’s-related brain changes take place years, even decades, before symptoms appear. That really may be the optimal window for drugs that delay progression or prevent the disease altogether,” Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, said in a 2010 report that looked at the concentrations of Alzheimer’s and the groups most likely to get the disease. “The clinical trials getting under way with these funds will test treatments in symptom-free volunteers at risk for the disease, or those in the very earliest stages — where we hope we can make the biggest difference.”
The report looked at research suggesting that older African-Americans are approximately two times more likely than older whites to have Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Interestingly, the study concluded, “no known genetic factors can account for the differences in the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias among older whites, African-Americans and Hispanics. On the other hand, conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which are known risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, are more common in older African-Americans and Hispanics than in older whites and probably account for some of the differences in prevalence of Alzheimer’s and other dementias among these groups.”
This latest effort will look at people who have no symptoms, but are at risk for Alzheimer’s because they have two copies of the ApoE4 gene that increases the risk of getting the disease as they age. Researchers already have found that more than half the people with two copies of the gene will develop Alzheimer’s, compared with a quarter of those who only have one copy and 10 percent of those who do not have the gene at all.
The NIH also announced Wednesday that it had awarded $1.5 million to a trial at Washington University in St. Louis, which will study the effects of three drugs on people who have rare gene mutations that lead to early-onset Alzheimer’s.
“We’re going to look at people at risk, just like we do with people who have high cholesterol and are at risk for cardiovascular disease,” Laurie Ryan, program director for Alzheimer’s disease clinical trials at the National Institute on Aging, told The New York Times. “If we intervene now, can we prevent or at least delay the disease?”
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”