Scientific breakthrough offers hope in the fight against Alzheimer’s. The disease was once thought to be inevitable part of ageing but new drug trials are showing tantalising signs of progress.
They number just 272 among the 50 million worldwide now thought to suffer. Yet more than a century after the death of Auguste Deter, a small group of participants in a new drug trial might be about to finally transform the outlook for Alzheimer’s – the most common form of dementia. It was Deter whose brain first revealed the condition’s tell tale tangles and protein build-ups, discovered in 1906 by the doctor who had treated her in life - Alois Alzheimer.
Despite astonishing progress in so many other fields of medicine, however, the intervening 115 years have seen little progress in treating the disease that bears his name.
Billions have been poured into research, even as societies age, and more and more fall prey to the condition. But the quest has become almost synonymous with disappointment. According to the World Health Organisation, there are an estimated 10 million new cases each year. “You need to be a masochist to study in this field,” says Prof Bart De Strooper, Director of the UK Dementia Research Institute.
But now at last, there is good news. Last month came the first results from trials - on 272 people - of a drug, donanemab, manufactured by the American pharma company Eli Lilly. The trial showed the drug was highly effective at removing the protein build-ups in the brain - known as amyloid plaques - that have been the principal target of research efforts in the last three decades. Scans showed the plaques in patients given the drug were cleared and then remained absent, and that the rate of cognitive decline was slowed by a third compared with those who received a placebo. The findings prompted both outpourings of joy and calls for caution.
The trial was small, the results need to be replicated and there is far from a consensus that amyloid is the sole - or even the principal driver - of the disease. But after so much heartbreak, it is, says De Strooper, “really exciting”. “If it can be repeated it would be close to….” he seems about to say the fabled word “cure” but perhaps scarred by prior setbacks, he reconsiders. “It would be very positive news.”
In all, it seems the tools are finally being assembled to tackle a disease that has long defied us. “Alzheimer’s will become like HIV - something you die with, not of,” says De Strooper. “That’s what I believe."