Potential Alzheimer's Breakthrough Excites Researchers

Potential Alzheimer's Breakthrough Excites Researchers

02.02.12 | By

There's a potentially very exciting story in today's New York Times that's worth a look. Researchers doing mouse studies have apparently learned some important new information about how Alzheimer's disease spreads in the brain. Specifically, what apparently surprised the researchers is that Alzheimer's disease apparently works like an infection but instead of a virus or bacteria spreading within the brain, a distorted protein called Tau is what spreads brain cell to brain cell.

The article suggests that researchers believe this finding may apply to other conditions - like Parkinson's disease. It further suggests that this new understanding of how the condition propagates within the brain has "immediate implications" for potential treatments.

That's good news, of course. Alzheimer's is a terrible disease that currently debilitates around 5 million Americans and is projected to afflict as many as 13.5 million patients (or 1 in 85 people) by the year 2050. While biopharmaceutical research companies are currently working on around 100 new medicines to help treat Alzheimer's, progress has been slow and the need for new treatments grows every day. These insights into how the disease functions will, hopefully, lead to new and even better approaches to how to treat and, hopefully, prevent Alzheimer's.

But here is where words of caution are, unfortunately, needed. This morning's news represents a potential breakthrough in our understanding of the disease and derives from very important basic research. While it may suggest new treatment possibilities and avenues for research, the challenge now is to translate these findings - if possible - into treatments. Even on the fastest track, this will take time - significant time - as well as a huge investment in people and resources.

It is critical to keep in mind that today the average development time for a new medicines - taking a possible treatment from the laboratory through all testing and clinical trials and the FDA approval process, on average, can take anywhere from 10 to 15 years. Also, it costs, on average about $1.3 billion. And, for every 5,000 to 10,000 compounds thought, in the laboratory, to be a potential new medicine, only one makes it all the way through all of the testing and trials to be approved by the FDA for patient use.

So, while today's news is exciting, hopeful and intriguing in the best sense - promising potential new approaches to challenges like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's - the road ahead is still a long one, especially for those confronting Alzheimer's disease. The point is, in our zeal and hope for innovative cures and treatments, we all must better understand the time, costs and process whereby critical basic research is translated into potential treatments as well as how difficult this process is. If we do, it can help to shape a better research and development environment that, hopefully, will continually improve the odds that an innovative idea can work its way from basic research in the lab to a medicines or treatment that contributes to helping to prevent disease, treat disease and save lives.

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