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New drug moderates problems for later-stage Alzheimer’s patients, researchers report
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A new drug from Germany moderates physical and mental disabilities of patients with later-stage Alzheimer's disease, researchers said Wednesday.
During six months of testing, the drug enabled "patients to dress themselves better, to bathe themselves better and to perform a variety of other functions in an improved fashion," said Dr. Barry Reisberg of New York University.
Patients given the new drug -- memantine -- also showed improvement in awareness and judgment, said Reisberg, a researcher at the NYU School of Medicine.
The testing, which involved 250 patients at 30 U.S. research centers, was reported to thousands of physicians and other scientists attending the first world conference on Alzheimer's disease, now under way in Washington.
Memantine did not stop or reverse Alzheimer's, but its moderating effects could become "immensely important" to patients and their families, a spokesman for the Alzheimer’s Association said.
No difference was seen in the level of aggression or agitation by patients taking the drug and those taking a placebo in the study, Reisberg said.
Memantine is available in Germany but probably will need several years of additional study before it is eligible for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
FDA officials have approved three drugs -- Aricept, Exelon and Cognex -- to treat mild to moderate Alzheimer's. In the United States, there are no approved treatments for later-stage Alzheimer's patients, many of whom are in or nearing the stage of needing full-time care at a nursing home.
"This is not a group of patients in whom a great deal of attention has been focused," said Dr. Steven DeKosky of the University of Pittsburgh. "To be able to slow the decline of people with moderate forms of the disease will be immense in terms of the total medical burden, but also in terms of the families and to the patients themselves."
The study reported Wednesday echoed results of earlier research done in Europe, according to the manufacturer of the drug, Merz and Co. in Frankfurt.
About 900 patients in France and the United Kingdom participated in tests, and the memantine-treated patients showed significant improvement, said Dr. Hans-Joerg Moebius, vice president of research and development of Merz's pharmaceutical division.
Describing the earlier research, Moebius said, "When cells are injured or damaged by the disease process, they send out abnormal signals, resulting in loss of neurological function. Damaged brain tissue releases excessive amounts of glutamate, causing toxic levels of calcium to enter neurons, resulting in further harm."
Memantine appears to protect the brain from the additional toxins while allowing normal signaling among brain neurons, he said.
The drug, taken in daily tablets, has been shown to have few side effects, Moebius added. "Those that occur are usually mild and short-lived."
Memantine also is being investigated to treat pain associated with diabetic neuropathy and AIDS-related dementia, the company said in a statement. This work is by scientists affiliated with Merz's U.S. research and development collaborator, Neurobiological Technologies Inc. of Richmond, California.
Trying to prevent Alzheimer's
Researchers at the Washington conference also discussed lifestyle changes healthy people can make that could help stave off the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
In a study of people with a gene that put them at higher risk for Alzheimer's, those who ate a high-fat diet were seven times more likely to develop the disease than those who ate a low-fat diet, researchers reported.
"Young people anywhere from 20 to 40 to 50 really should probably take this to heart and try to lower the fat in their diet," said Grace Petot of Case Western Reserve University.
Other health-enhancing choices -- similar to those for people wishing to avoid heart problems and other diseases -- include keeping blood pressure and cholesterol in normal ranges, getting exercise and keeping mentally alert, the Alzheimer’s researchers said.
The older a person becomes the more likely the disease will occur. Approximately 50 percent of Americans over 85 have Alzheimer's.
About 12 million people, including 4 million in the United States, have Alzheimer’s, according to the latest estimates. The debilitating brain disease influences the lives of millions of other people, particularly family members of patients.
Scientists have projected that with people living longer in the United States and many other countries, the number of Alzheimer’s patients will reach 22 million by 2025.
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Merz and Co.
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