A Breakthrough in Understanding the Biology of Alzheimer's Disease?

A Breakthrough in Understanding the Biology of Alzheimer's Disease?

04.04.11 | By

There was some big news announced in the battle against Alzheimer's disease. The New York Times reports that gene studies are revealing important new insights on how it works. Researchers are looking at five genes that appear to play a significant role in the onset of Alzheimer's.

Much of the excitement, understandably, comes from the fact that if you can determine triggers and causes, it can lead to thinking more broadly about potential new treatments.

We've talked about Alzheimer's a lot from the very early days of this blog. For anyone who has experienced a family member with Alzheimer's or dementia, there is an urgent hope for any effective treatment. For the country, it is imperative.

Without better detection methods, new treatments or even a cure, The Alzheimer's Association projects nothing less than a health care crisis over the next 40 years with cases of Alzheimer's' disease growing by 2050 to between 11 and 16 million Americans (as well as large patient populations globally) with a potential cost to the healthcare system of around $1.8 trillion. And those figures say nothing about the pain of families and the burden on care givers.

The progress announced on understanding some of the genetic factors, of course, is not an end in itself nor does it yet hint at a new treatment. It is, rather, an important part of a far, far longer process of research and discovery that might, someday, lead to a new treatment.

It is a long road ahead. As scientists understand more about the possible genetic underpinning of Alzheimer's, there may occur to them a path toward either new ways to diagnose the disease or a new treatment. That's important, as a new treatment that postpones full onset of the condition by five years could relieve families and patients of the pain of the disease as well as save hundreds of billions a year in treatment costs, according to T he Alzheimer's Association.

But really, we're just starting down that road. Knowledge is progress and critical to the success of finding a treatment. But, realism is also essential. Were the just announced discoveries to lead tomorrow to new ideas about a treatment, the time between the start of work in a laboratory and a possible new drug approved for patient use is under the best of circumstances around 10 years. But the reality of scientific and biopharmaceutical research in particular is that the vast majority of great ideas for a new medicine never pan out.

The bottom line is that we've a long way to go, but there is also a lot being done and there's reason to hope. Today, there are nearly 100 medicines now in late stage development to help fight Alzheimer's disease. And, of course, new information and better understanding of the biology of the disease - like that recently announced - will open new doors and inspire new approaches.

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