Brain enzymes could be key to Alzheimer's treatment
Some researchers say more needs to be done for people already suffering from the debilitating disease
October 26, 1999
Web posted at: 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT)
From Medical Correspondent Eileen O'Connor
MIAMI (CNN) -- Scientists outlined on Monday some of the more promising treatments in the works for Alzheimer's Disease, a debilitating neurological condition that affects 5 million people in the United States.
But after reporting a major discovery last week -- the location of a key enzyme in the brain linked to the mysterious condition -- researchers at the annual Society for Neuroscience convention in Miami cautioned that effective treatment could be years away.
Scientists have known that disease takes place when protein plaques build up in the brain and attack nerve cells.
The resulting brain damage has devastating effects. Sufferers, mostly the elderly, slowly lose their memory of loved ones and their ability to do even the simplest tasks.
Two biotech firms are now developing drugs to stop at least one of two enzymes crucial in the production of toxic plaques. Amgen and Elan have located one of the enzymes, which has improved their ability to test drugs.
But Martin Citron, head of Alzheimer's research at Amgen, cautioned there are no guarantees.
"Clinical trials can fail because the drugs may be toxic," he said. "It's possible that it will be very difficult to measure slight improvement, so we are cautiously optimistic. But we cannot guarantee that at the end of the day we will have a drug out of this."
Elan researchers are testing another approach to combat the disease by vaccinating mice with the toxic plaque in the hopes of forcing the immune system to fight it naturally. Whether the results can be repeated in older human beings remains unknown.
Drugs already in development may stop the brain damage scientists suspect leads to Alzheimer's
Donald Price, president-elect of the Society of Neuroscience, said high-tech advances in the laboratory are driving Alzheimer's research at an increasing pace.
"If you had asked me 10 years ago whether we would be here, I would have said no," Price said.
Stephen McConnel, the vice-president of the Alzheimer's Association, is enthusiastic about the pace of research relating to the condition, but he adds that more emphasis should be place on those suffering now.
"We need to put more research into enabling families and individuals to deal with the disease," he said.
Regardless, Alzheimer's should remain a major priority for researchers looking to cure or prevent the disease. The number of patients is expected to triple during the next 50 years.
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