By Mark Huntsman
April 15, 2014
Alzheimer’s disease presents researchers with a number of challenges, from the difficulties in early detection and treatment to the trouble in securing adequate funding for research. The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF), whose “mission is to rapidly accelerate the discovery of drugs to prevent, treat and cure Alzheimer’s,” provides seed funding for early-stage research at Alzheimer’s drug discovery programs around the world.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Penny Dacks, Assistant Director of Aging and Alzheimer’s Prevention at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, about what the foundation does, the challenges they face and some of the exciting new drug research they’re helping make possible.
A Closer Look at the Complexities of Alzheimer’s Research
Alzheimer’s researchers have been shifting their focus from new treatment options to disease prevention. When we asked whether she thinks this new shift is the right approach, Penny Dacks replied, "Well, we need both approaches. Patients are here now and they need treatment today. But at the same time, we may have a greater impact on tomorrow’s generation if we tackle the disease before it really takes hold in the brain. If we can do that, if we can tackle it earlier—before it’s done a lot of damage—we may be able to effectively limits its impact.”
A comparison of Alzheimer’s research spending versus the massive amounts of money spent on annual care reveals a startling gap. So how can we get the government to prioritize Alzheimer’s?
“In a sense,” says Dacks, “our foundation’s mission has been to put more drugs on goal. It’s likely that the ultimate treatment answer is going to be a couple of drugs that take different approaches. For instance, anti-amyloid drugs (which affect the formation of plaques in the brain) is where pharmaceutical companies have focused their research in last couple decades.” Because of this, it’s made sense for the ADDF to fund research that takes a different approach. “Our foundation funds certain diabetes drugs and other medications that might end up being very promising with Alzheimer’s disease.”
“There’s significant difficulty in not just paying for but executing clinical trials,” Dacks continues, “because the trials need to be extremely long, and they are very hard to do successfully unless participants have a biomarker that can set them aside before they have the disease. How do we know the drug is working unless they’ve been demonstrating symptoms for a long time—as long as 10 to 15 years? There are biomarkers like Amyvid™ that need to be further tested. That one’s looking at plaques in the brain and asking, if you remove the plaques, will you lower risk for Alzheimer’s? So there are multiple trials going on right now, testing real drugs and measuring long-term benefits and effects. If they’re successful, they’ll accelerate how we can build and test drugs in the future.”
Fighting the Good Fight: Building a National Movement
Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to Alzheimer’s in our society. But the good news is that the stigma can effectively be overcome, as demonstrated by the work that AIDS and cancer communities have done. For Alzheimer’s, says Penny, a crucial element in making similar progress is “having more brave people who are willing to speak up, whether on the national scale or in their communities. People communicating that there is hope, there are drugs being developed. If that message comes across, then it will help people cope as well as they can until real hope-giving treatments can come along. Once we have effective drugs, it will be better and easier to speak up, and the positive message will build on itself.”
Individuals can not only talk to their congressperson, but work through the advocacy groups that exist—like the Alzheimer’s Association and UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, among others—that count on their members to give them more strength. Dacks notes that “there are other organizations like our foundation that are doing great work.” In short, we all have a role we can play. “We also need to be thinking about how we can encourage investment from for-profit companies. Certain potential changes in patent laws, for instance, that could be made in order to foster more innovation, she says.”
How Younger Generations Can Prevent Alzheimer’s
While there is not yet a cure for the disease, there is significant data suggesting that we may be able to control up to 50% of all Alzheimer’s factors, including:
All of these factors have evidence suggesting that they are preventive, and they also improve your quality of life and long-term health in a number of ways.
“Part of what ADDF is doing,” notes Dacks, “is working to help people understand the impacts of hypertension for long-term brain health.” Hypertension [HT] is high pressure of your blood vessels. “Stress can contribute to it,” she continues, “but there are a lot of other causes. Most people who have hypertension are put onto anti-HT drugs, and there’s pretty good evidence that people who manage their hypertension have lower long-term risk for Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia that are caused by mini-strokes in the brain. “
According to ADDF, “100% of your donation goes directly to Alzheimer’s drug research and related programs. All of [our] administrative and overhead costs are covered by a private foundation.” To find out more about funding and donation opportunities, please visit the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation today.
If you’re interested in Alzheimer’s research developments and learning more about the importance of brain health, we encourage you to check out the online resource Cognitive Vitality.