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Stay, memory, stay

Hang-Shuen LeeJuly 23, 2015

While Alzheimer's disease is still stealing countless people's memories, scientists have long been searching for an effective treatment. New drugs currently in research might help patients fend off the disorder.

Demenz Alzheimer Symbolbild
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

When human beings age, some start to lose their memories, have difficulties solving problems or making judgments and some lose the ability to speak. These are all symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Until now, scientists have had little idea of how to cure the neurodegenerative disease. Current drugs on market, such as Namenda and Aricept, can help to relieve the symptoms, but they do not slow down the disease's progression.

Scientists have long been searching for a way to treat the disease at the source. Pharmacies like Eli Lilly, Biogen and Roche have announced that they are working on some new drugs. The latest announcement came from Eli Lilly on Wednesday at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Washington.

Taking aim at amyloid

The new drugs target at a protein plaque in brains called amyloid, which is believed by many scientists to be the major cause of the disease. Antibodies make their way to the brain via the bloodstream and attack the amyloid.

"If patients do it long enough and early enough, it will help to stabilize the memory lost of patients in some ways," Christian Haass, head of the Laboratory of Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, told DW.

A section of a human brain with Alzheimer's disease is on display at the Museum of Neuroanatomy at the University at Buffalo, New York. (Photo: AP)
Antibodies would fight the amyloid plaque in the brainImage: AP

Amyloid is generated in the brain and all human beings produce it during their lifetime. "That's why everybody has such a high risk to get the disease," said Haass. "Normally there is a clearance mechanism in our brain which removes all trash, including amyloid, but if you get too old, this doesn't work anymore."

He said he sees the discovery of working against the protein plaque to be a major breakthrough, especially since all other attempts to cure the disease have not worked. "It's the first time that there's really hope," Haass said.

Unknown side effects

However, Haass added that the drugs will definitely not reach patients in the near future. There have only been two studies so far and more research has to be conducted. "We still don't know if they stably reduce memory lost or if they would cause any side effects," he said.

"We are talking about drugs that have a fairly high concentration in the brain, and the brain is a very complicated organ," Haass added. "If only anything goes wrong, there will be big problems."

The drugs are also not expected to be effective for patients who long suffered from Alzheimer's. "When patients already suffer from moderate to severe memory lost, it's too late," he said.

The earlier, the better

This is also one of the reasons why many of the attempts in the past years have failed. There were more than 100 failures within 20 years. There have also been drugs that attempted to prevent amyloid production, but they also failed due to patients' advanced stage of Alzheimer's disease. Some 20 million to 35 million people are estimated to suffer from the disorder.

"What we learned from these failed trials is that the disease is manifested approximately 15 to 20 years before we see the very first symptoms," said Haass. "The earlier you treat it, the better the outcome."