Health & Medicine

N.J. neurologist predicts victory over Alzheimer's

HACKENSACK, N.J. — A New Jersey neuroscientist deeply involved in Alzheimer's research said that in just two years, doctors might have the medicine to treat the brain-killing disease.

Dr. Howard Fillit, also a geriatrician and executive director of the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation, said last week that more than 150 clinical trials worldwide are testing dozens of drugs that might provide the answer to combating the disease itself, and not just the symptoms.

"Currently the drugs we have are purely for treating the symptoms, but we're hoping the new ones will slow down the progression of the disease — and ultimately, prevention is the goal," Fillit said. "Some of the drugs are in the final phases of testing, and we'll have the reports in two years on whether they work."

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, caused by the destruction of nerve cells in the brain. It is usually fatal, initially causing memory failure, personality changes and problems completing daily activities, until its progression leaves a patient unable to walk, speak or swallow.

Five million Americans have Alzheimer's. More than 80 of the current clinical trials are occurring in New Jersey alone, said Ed Belkin, vice president of communications and public affairs with Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade association for biotech research companies.

"As the baby boomers age, the number of Alzheimer's patients will swell, and the financial costs are just not sustainable," Belkin said. "Medical advancements are the answer, and research scientists are committed to win this battle against Alzheimer's."

In 2009, the average annual compensated cost for a patient with Alzheimer's was $33,000, and the estimated cost for unpaid caregivers was $4.2 billion, Belkin said.

Researchers think that Alzheimer's is caused by two abnormal conditions in and around neurons — the nerve cells in the brain. Plaques, which are deposits of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid, build up in the spaces between neurons and are thought to block communication between them. In healthy brains, scientists think, these proteins are broken down and eliminated.

Fillit said scientists aren't yet sure whether the plaque causes the disruption or is just a scar left by the brain as it degenerates.

"If the drugs can remove the plaque, it should slow the rate of the disease," Fillit said. "But we're not sure if the plaque is the cause or a scar."

The other abnormal finding is tangles. These are twisted fibers of a protein called tau located inside the neuron. Normally, tau forms structures to transport nutrients and other substances from one part of the cell to another. In Alzheimer's patients, however, these structures are abnormal, and they collapse, leading to the death of the cells. The new drugs should prevent the structures from collapsing.

"These tangles are the tombstones of the cells," Fillit said. "But with these new drugs, I am very hopeful we will soon conquer this nightmare of old age."