Drugs May Slow Progress Of Alzheimer's

Studies reported at this week's international conference on Alzheimer's disease in Chicago say several new drugs show promise in slowing the progress of Alzheimer's more than currently approved drugs — at least in preliminary human trials.

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More than 5,000 Alzheimer's disease researchers gathered in Chicago last week at the largest meeting ever convened on the topic. Scientists presented a number of new approaches to treating Alzheimer's.

NPR's Richard Knox looks at a couple of studies that got the most attention.

RICHARD KNOX: The handful of current drugs to treat Alzheimer's only slow it down a little bit.

Dr. CLAUDE WISCHIK (Professor of Gerontology and Old Age, University of Aberdeen): The drugs really only deliver a six- to eight-month improvement, and then as the disease continues inexorably on its path, then that six-month benefit is eaten away by the ongoing disease process.

KNOX: That's Dr. Claude Wischik of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He's bucking the trend in Alzheimer's research. Most scientists focus on a protein called amyloid that gums up the brains of Alzheimer's patients. He's interested in another protein called TAU that creates tangles of nerve fibers.

Dr. WISCHIK: Look, you can have high levels of amyloid in your brain and play bridge, but if you have high levels of TAU in your brain, you can't find your way to the toilet.

KNOX: So Wischik's group has been studying a drug that dissolves the tangles of tau protein. It's called MTC. They gave it or a placebo to 321 patients with mild or moderate Alzheimer's.

Dr. WISCHIK: We saw that the decline that occurred in the controls absolutely did not occur in those that had the treatment.

KNOX: That is, their ability to remember, think and function didn't decline over the two years of the study. Wischik says this is the first time anyone has shown that Alzheimer's can be halted. He's founded a company that hopes to profit from MTC.

Maria Carrillo is a scientist and spokeswoman for the Alzheimer's Association.

Ms. MARIA CARRILLO (Spokeswoman, Alzheimer's Association): What this study showed us is that in comparison to the symptomatic treatments that we have available today, clearly this drug, MTC, showed a much better, long-term improvement.

KNOX: She says one reason the report caused a splash is that it focused on the abnormal tangles in Alzheimer's brains.

Ms. CARRILLO: It is a new therapeutic angle, and it marks a seminal moment, really, in the field, and we're very excited about that.

KNOX: But not everybody is excited. Dr. Rachelle Doody heads the Alzheimer's Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. She doesn't believe Wischik's results.

Dr. RACHELLE DOODY (Director, Alzheimer's Center, Baylor College of Medicine): All of us have patients every week in our clinic who, thankfully, don't get worse from one year to the next on standard therapies, and so to show a handful of patients and make that claim was, you know, overreaching.

KNOX: Doody and her colleagues presented another study that got a lot of attention, even though it was smaller than Wischik's. It tested a drug called Dimebon originally developed as an allergy medication.

After a year on the drug, patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's had much less mental decline than those on placebo, and there was a suggestion of improvement.

Dr. DOODY: People's abilities were improved over where they started, and that was maintained throughout the one-year study.

KNOX: Even six months later, their brain function stayed the same. Those on placebo who switched to Dimebon did better, although they didn't catch up to the others.

It'll take time to see whether either of these new approaches will really make a difference. As Claude Wischik says, it's one thing for a researcher to get excited but another for a new drug to actually help mom or dad.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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