Alzheimer's focus shifts to buildup clogging brain cells

Thursday, September 9, 2004

How to prevent a sticky gunk from clogging up, and probably killing, the brain cells of Alzheimer's patients is the newest focus in the fight against the disease.

Half a dozen companies are developing drugs to target the buildup, and researchers are enrolling hundreds of patients to test the lead candidate -- although nobody yet knows if this gunk, called beta-amyloid, is the disease's true culprit.

But it's the chief suspect, and tests of these drugs could finally end a long-standing debate over the cause of Alzheimer's devastating symptoms.

"We have placed our bet on the amyloid hypothesis," is the way Dr. Eric Siemers of Eli Lilly & Co. puts it -- a statement that describes much of the industry's focus.

The theory is that reducing this brain plaque will finally offer a way to do more than treat just the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, as today's drugs do. But lest families' hopes get too high, even proponents expect anti-amyloid therapy is most likely to help mild disease, before too many neurons have died.

"If you're trying to control the disease process, you certainly want to treat people as early as possible," said Dr. Paul Aisen, a Georgetown University neurologist who is heading the largest U.S. study yet of an anti-amyloid drug, Neurochem Inc.'s Alzhemed.

About 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's, a creeping brain degeneration that slowly robs its victims of memory and the ability to reason, communicate and care for themselves. With the aging population, a staggering 14 million may have it by 2050.

Locally, more than 66,000 people in the 38 counties served by the St. Louis Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association have the disease. The disease also impacts 130,000 caregivers for those patients who need assistance because of the disease.

The Alzheimer's Association will hold a Memory Walk Sept. 18 at Capaha Park to help raise awareness of the disease. The event is also a fund raiser and organizers hope to raise $45,000 in Southeast Missouri.

The walk begins at 9 a.m., with an opening ceremony. Registration is at 8 a.m. For information, call 332-8170 or visit www.alzstl.org.

"By joining Memory Walk not only are you showing your support for Alzheimer's families in your community, you are also helping to protect future generations from this disease," said Burt Bollinger, communications coordinator for the Alzheimer's Association St. Louis chapter.

"We are telling people they must get involved because it will take every one of us to fight Alzheimer's disease," he said.

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