On April 19, congressional staff and research advocates gathered at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC to watch a new NOVA documentary about Alzheimer’s disease and discuss the urgent need to find a cure for the disease.
“Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped?” follows Alzheimer’s patients enrolled in clinical trials for new drugs as well as scientists working to develop treatments for the progressive, incurable brain disease. The documentary was screened as part of a Congressional Neuroscience Caucus briefing and co-hosted by Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the institute’s in-house film studio Tangled Bank, which produced the film.
The most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease affects nearly 35 million people worldwide, including 5 million in the U.S. The disease, which typically strikes after age 65, begins with basic memory and cognitive problems and gradually worsens until patients, unable to care for themselves, become fully demented and die.
“Alzheimer’s is like having a sliver of your brain shaved off every day … and it is scary,” says Greg O’Brien, a journalist who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2009 and is one of the patients featured in the film.
During the course of the disease, certain proteins build up in the brain, preventing neurons from functioning normally and eventually killing them. Although these molecular changes are behind the disease, how and why they occur is still a hot topic of research.
Since the exact mechanism of Alzheimer’s is still unclear, there are currently no drugs that directly target the disease — the few drugs that are available only help temper symptoms. If progress towards a cure or treatment is not made, the number of American diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease could double in the next 20 years as the baby boomer generation continues to age.
“It’s going to grow to epidemic proportions. It has the potential for bankrupting the entire medical system,” says Ken Kosik, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies Alzheimer’s and was featured in the film.
However, the film shows how finding an effective treatment is difficult because of how much remains to be learned about the cause of the disease. Factors like a person’s age, genetic makeup, and lifestyle may all play a role the onset and acceleration of the disease. While researchers acknowledge a silver bullet cure is not on the immediate horizon, some experts in the film propose that a combination of treatments individualized for a patient’s age and genetic background may end up being the best strategy to control the disease and improve the quality of life.
As shown in the film, many pharmaceutical companies have drugs targeting Alzheimer’s disease in clinical trials right now. Although most clinical trials fail — in part because of our limited understanding of how the proteins in the brain interact and affect neurons — each one allows researchers to learn a little more about effective treatments. While the film notes much more research needs to be done to understand the molecular changes underlying the disease and the potential genes involved, experts predict we may see the first drugs to target Alzheimer’s by 2020.
Following the screening, Julia Cort, deputy executive director for NOVA, led a panel to discuss the film. In addition to Kosik and O’Brien, the panel also included Sarah Holt, the film’s director; Dennis Liu, executive director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Tangled Bank Studios; and Neil Buckholtz, the former director of the Division of Neuroscience at the National Institute on Aging.
The panel discussed the importance of both basic and clinical research in the search for Alzheimer’s treatments and the need for continued federal investment in research. Alzheimer’s currently costs the U.S. about $220 billion each year and the panel emphasized that research is essential to keeping these costs from rising.
Cell, animal, and human research models are vital to understanding the genetic and environmental risk factors underlying Alzheimer’s pathology and to developing successful treatments, Kosik said. “We need all the models,” he said when asked about the use of animals in Alzheimer’s research. “There’s only one way out of this problem and that’s research.”