Finding a Cure for Alzheimer’s Disease

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By Kelly Mazzei

New funding for Alzheimer’s disease research might be just the gift needed to move closer to a cure. In November 2017, Bill Gates, cofounder of Microsoft, pledged $100 million dollars to Alzheimer’s disease research.

This contribution was prompted by Gates’ personal family history of the disease as well as his interest in the financial burden it places on families, the healthcare system and society as a whole.1  Alzheimer’s is currently the 6th leading cause of death in the United States, with 1 in 10 individuals anticipated to develop the disease at some point in their life.2 The social and financial burden of Alzheimer’s, along with the prevalence of the disease, has increased in recent years due to an aging population. The yearly cost burden has been estimated by the American Alzheimer’s Association to be around $259 billion.2

Taking both the emotional and financial aspects into account, Bill Gates has expressed a desire to have this donation go towards new and innovative approaches to solve the disease. His goals include enabling researchers to gain a better understanding of how Alzheimer’s disease progresses, improving screening and detection methods, fast tracking the clinical trial timeline, and ensuring that the data collected from trials is compiled into a common and more accessible form.1

Current FDA approved treatments for Alzheimer’s disease include cholinesterase inhibitors (Aricept, Exelon) which increase acetylcholine in the brain to improve symptoms, and NMDA receptor antagonists (Namenda) which slow the deleterious effects of glutamate in the memory centers of the brain.3 These existing treatments merely slow the progression of the disease, and fail to provide a cure.

Although the definitive cause of Alzheimer’s is not known, major hypotheses suggest that accumulation of certain proteins in the brain may be a driver. Beta-amyloid is a protein which has normal functions that are poorly understood; however, in Alzheimer’s, the protein forms plaques which disrupt normal neuronal activity.4,5 Similarly, another protein, tau, normally works to keep neurons structurally stabilized, but in Alzheimer’s disease, tau instead accumulates to form plaques in the brain.5 Therapies in the research pipeline are being developed to target these proteins. Examples include JNJ-54861911, which inhibits the formation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, and AADvac1, which is a vaccine that attacks abnormal forms of tau proteins.4 Gates writes in his personal blog, “I hope those approaches succeed, but we need to back scientists with different, less mainstream ideas in case they don’t…I hope that in the next 10 years that we have some powerful drugs, but it’s possible that won’t be achieved.1 Gates hopes that new research will supplement these “mainstream” approaches by focusing on novel research to better design therapies that will reach the market faster.

The recent financial contribution from Bill Gates has the potential to change the future for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. Gates writes, “People should be able to enjoy their later years—and we need a break through in Alzheimer’s to fulfill that. I’m excited to join the fight and can’t wait to see what happens next.1 With a fresh investment, there may be a renewed sense of hope for Alzheimer’s disease for all of us.

References

  1. Gates, B. Why I’m Digging Deep into Alzheimer’s. The Blog of Bill Gates. November 11, 2017. https://www.gatesnotes.com/Health/Digging-Deep-Into-Alzheimers. Accessed January 13, 2018.
  2. Alzheimer’s Association Facts and Figures. Alzheimer’s Association Web Site. http://www.alz.org/facts/#prevalence. Accessed January 15, 2018.
  3. Press D, Alexander M. Alzheimer’s Treatment. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate Inc; March 2017. Accessed January 13, 2018.
  4. Alzheimer’s Treatment Horizon. Alzheimer’s Association Web Site. https://www.alz.org/research/science/alzheimers_treatment_horizon.asp. Accessed January 15, 2018.
  5. Medeiros R, Baglietto-Vargas D, LaFerla FM. The Role of Tau in Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders. CNS neuroscience & therapeutics. 2011;17(5):514-524.

This article was written by Kelly Mazzei, a student at Duquesne University School of Pharmacy, and reviewed by her faculty advisor, Dr. Jordan Covvey.

Kelly is currently a fifth-year professional student at the Duquesne University School of Pharmacy. She hopes to pursue a career in geriatric pharmacy consulting to support the need for improved quality of life in senior patients. Her interests include infectious disease, pain management and public health.

Dr. Covvey is an Assistant Professor in Pharmacy Administration at the Duquesne University School of Pharmacy. She earned her Doctor of Pharmacy from the University of Kentucky in 2010, and then completed residency training at Virginia Commonwealth University Health System in 2011. She subsequently passed her board certification in pharmacotherapy (BCPS) and was selected as a recipient of a Fulbright grant to complete a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences in Scotland. She currently teaches in the public and global health curriculum for pharmacy students at Duquesne, and her research area is in the utilization of healthcare data, such as electronic medical records, for quality improvement in prescribing.