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Health and wellness

Breakthrough hope for Alzheimer’s as many drug companies give up the fight

A new antibody trial offers promise in the fight against the degenerative disease, and comes at a time when most companies are ready to give up research after decades without results

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 8:03pm

Today is World Alzheimer’s Day, an event launched in 2012 to raise global awareness of the disease.

It comes this year with a glimmer of promise for a breakthrough: a joint US-Japanese clinical trial of an antibody designed to break down proteins thought to hamper neuroactivity significantly helped the brain function of test subjects.

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On Wednesday, a team of scientists in the US said they had eliminated dead but toxic cells occurring naturally in the brains of mice designed to mimic Alzheimer’s and slowed neuron damage and memory loss associated with the disease.

Alzheimer’s occurs when neurons in the brain lose their ability to communicate with one another, leading patients to struggle to remember names and places, orient themselves or interact with loved ones.

Worldwide, about seven per cent of people over 65 suffer from the disease or some form of dementia, a percentage that rises to 40 per cent above the age of 85.

The numbers are expected to triple by 2050 to 152 million, according to the World Health Organisation, posing a huge challenge to health care systems.

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Alzheimer’s costs an estimated US$818 billionin 2015 – equivalent to around one per cent of global GDP, and this is predicted to double by 2030.

It’s a devastating disease driving a dementia epidemic ruining tens of millions of lives, but with no new medical treatment since the turn of the century, the fight against Alzheimer’s is foundering.

Despite decades of research and hundreds of millions of dollars, the precise cause of the neurodegenerative disease – which leaves victims suffering from memory loss, disorientation and behavioural problems – remains poorly understood.

“It’s a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the result needs to look like,” says Pierre Tariot, director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.

This year alone, pharmaceutical giants – including Lundbeck, Takeda, Merck, Janssen Biotech, AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly – have either halted or failed in their search for a new Alzheimer’s drug.

US drug giant Pfizer said in January it was abandoning all research into the disease.

The problem, according to Marie Sarazin, director of neurology at the Saint-Anne hospital in Paris, is that scientific research has followed “the same track” for decades.

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After trials on mice focused on diseased neurons in the brain appeared to produce a breakthrough in the early 2000s, many corporations “thought they’d hit the jackpot”, says Sarazin.

Follow-up research has so far failed to produce a new medical treatment for Alzheimer’s though. Indeed, the long-held hypothesis over what causes the disease in the first place is now being reconsidered.

With developed nations dealing with the health challenges posed by ageing populations, many experts agree that more attention must focus on prevention as well as cure.

Exercise, drinking less alcohol and eating a balanced diet have all shown to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

“It seems that like in any other neurodegenerative disease, the key will be to go into prevention, as early as possible before signs and symptoms of the pathology occurs,” says Danny Bar-Zohar, global head of neuroscience development at Novartis.