New drug trial seeks to stop Alzheimer’s before it starts

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Brain scans of a patient who has Alzheimer's disease

In a clinical trial that could lead to treatments that prevent Alzheimer’s, people who are genetically guaranteed to develop the disease — but who do not yet have any symptoms — will for the first time be given a drug intended to stop it, federal officials announced Tuesday.

Experts say the study will be one of the few ever conducted to test prevention treatments for any genetically predestined disease. For Alzheimer’s, the trial is unprecedented, “the first to focus on people who are cognitively normal but at very high risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Most participants will come from the world’s largest family to experience Alzheimer’s, an extended clan of 5,000 people who live in Medellín, Colombia, and remote mountain villages outside that city. Family members with a specific genetic mutation begin showing cognitive impairment around age 45, and full dementia around age 51, debilitated in their prime working years as their memories fade and the disease quickly assaults their ability to move, eat, speak and communicate.

Three hundred family members will participate in the initial trial. Those with the mutation will be years away from symptoms, some as young as 30.

“Because of this study, we do not feel as alone,” said Gladys Betancur, 39, a family member. Her mother died of Alzheimer’s, three of her siblings already have symptoms, and she had a hysterectomy because of her fears that she has the mutation and would pass it on to her children. “Sometimes we think that life is ending, but now we feel that people are trying to help us.”

The $100 million study will last five years, but sophisticated tests may indicate in two years whether the drug helps delay memory decline or brain changes, said Dr. Eric M. Reiman, executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix and a study leader.

Alzheimer’s experts not involved in the study said that though only a small percentage of people with Alzheimer’s have the genetic early-onset form that affects the Colombian family, the trial was expected to yield information that could apply to millions of people worldwide who will develop more conventional Alzheimer’s.

“It offers a tremendous opportunity for us to answer a large number of questions, while at the same time offering these people some significant clinical help that otherwise they never would have had,” said Dr. Steven T. DeKosky, an Alzheimer’s researcher who is vice president and dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Dr. DeKosky was part of a large group consulted early on, but is not involved in the study.

Some 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and the numbers are expected to swell as the baby boom generation ages. Dr. Reiman’s team is planning a similar trial for people in the United States considered at increased risk for conventional late-onset Alzheimer’s. The study announced Tuesday will include a small number of Americans with gene mutations guaranteed to cause early-onset Alzheimer’s.

The drug trial is part of the federal government’s first national plan to address Alzheimer’s, which was unveiled Tuesday by Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary for health and human services. The government took the unusual step of assigning $50 million from the current year’s N.I.H. budget to research considered too promising to wait, including the Colombia trial and a study on whether inhaled insulin can ease mild cognitive impairment, Dr. Collins said. Another $100 million is proposed for 2013, mostly for research, but also for education, caregiver support and data collection.

Success for the Colombia trial is, of course, no sure thing. Many trials fail, and Alzheimer’s research has so far found no treatment effective for more than several months. But experts say that trying drugs years before symptoms emerge could have greater potential because the brain would not yet be ravaged by the disease. The trial will be financed with $16 million from the National Institutes of Health, $15 million from private donors through the Banner Institute and about $65 million from Genentech, the drug’s American manufacturer.

The drug, Crenezumab, attacks amyloid plaques in the brain. If it can forestall memory or cognitive problems, scientists will know that prevention or delay is possible and appears to lie in targeting amyloid years before dementia develops. Many, but not all, Alzheimer’s researchers believe amyloid is an underlying cause of Alzheimer’s.

In 2010, The New York Times reported on the pervasiveness of dementia in this large Colombian family and scientists’ hopes of testing prevention drugs. But persuading pharmaceutical companies to invest took months. There are scientific and ethical issues involved with giving drugs to people who are healthy and people who live in a developing country, some of whom have little education, paltry incomes and longstanding superstitions about the disease they call La Bobera — the foolishness.

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