Hardly will you find anyone in America who doesn’t know of someone suffering from Alzheimer ’s disease. Of course, it is the most common form of dementia and studies have shown that it is afflicting about 44 million people worldwide, including 5.5 million persons in the United States. It was predicted that those figures could triple by the year 2050 as the older population increases.
Alzheimer’s disease is arguably one of the most difficult health problems in medicine today. And so far, the only few drugs that have been approved for the treatment of this dementia have not been effective enough.
The question now is: why are there no effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease yet? Will we ever be able to cure Alzheimer’s disease given the fact that there has not been any proven way to prevent or delay its effects? These are questions begging for answers.
Close to two decades now, researchers, funding agencies and clinical trial efforts have largely directed toward one strategy. They’ve been focusing efforts on clearing the brain to get rid of the clumps of beta-amyloid protein forming the plaques that linked integrally to the disease. Although some of these drugs have reduced the accumulation of amyloid, none of them have been able to successfully stop or reverse dementia.
A closer look at the condition even reveals that not everyone with amyloid plaques has Alzheimer’s. This suggests that the presence of amyloid doesn’t really explain everything about the diseases.
“It’s not that amyloid is not an important factor,” said Dr. John Morris, director of the Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “On the other hand, we’ve had some 200-plus trials since 2001 that have been negative.” There are other drugs that also focus on reducing the accumulation of tau in the brain. Tau is a protein that forms threads that tangled together inside the neurons, thereby interfering with their communications.
So far, only five drugs have been approved for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. But, these drugs have not been functional because rather than attacking the ailment itself, they only target early symptoms. The last time such approval was made was 15 years ago. There is a need for more research that will bring about the discovery of more functional drugs.
“The field is desperate, and we all want something to work,” said Dr. Reisa Sperling, director of the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Truth be told, the reasons why Alzheimer’s research has been failing in clinical trials goes beyond the issues of amyloid and tau. Researchers have not been able to engineer animals to show symptoms similar to human dementia, which allow for effective drug trials on animals before using it on humans.
An effective Alzheimer’s therapy may not be visible if there are no drugs for advanced Alzheimer’s, and where clinical trials only focus on earlier stages of the disease. If treatments continue to focus on symptoms instead of the disease itself, curing Alzheimer’s may remain a mirage for us.