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Fighting Alzheimer's

Breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s Treatments Expected in the Next Decade

Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Bennett

Basic scientific research on Alzheimer’s disease is still in its early stages. Doctors expect breakthroughs on treatments within 10 years.


Howard Fillit, M.D.

Founding Executive Director and Chief Science Officer, Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation

Alzheimer’s disease affects an estimated 5.7 million Americans. It is the sixth leading cause of death among all adults, and the fifth for those aged 65 or older. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that rates for Alzheimer’s disease are increasing. Meanwhile, heart disease and cancer death rates are on the decline. Despite these bleak statistics, there are several exciting developments in research that doctors are hopeful will lead to a cure. The next decade will be a defining time for Alzheimer’s drug discovery and development.

While people may be frustrated with the lack of new treatments for Alzheimer’s, what they don’t realize is that research is in its infancy. The first drugs for blood pressure were discovered in the early 1960s. The first cancer treatments came in 1948. In contrast, the first drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease was not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration until 1993, the same year that the first Alzheimer’s risk-factor gene was identified.

Breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s treatments

Today, more drugs are being studied for Alzheimer’s than ever before. Progress in many areas of research, including gene therapy, neuro-protection treatments, as well as the use of existing drugs for other illnesses show promise as new approaches for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s has a complex and interrelated set of causes, and drugs targeting more than one of those causes will be needed to effectively treat it.

Critical to our success in finding effective ways to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s is the development of reliable, affordable and accessible bio-markers – just as cholesterol is an early biomarker for heart disease. This will allow us to better understand how the disease progresses, more easily identify people for clinical trials and more accurately monitor their response to treatments.

That is why the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation started a partnership this year with Bill Gates, the Dolby Foundation and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation. The goal? To create the Diagnostics Accelerator. This initiative will advance the development of novel bio-markers from blood and other peripheral fluids, and tissue to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. 

It typically takes at least 30 years for drugs to be developed out of scientific research. The work on Alzheimer’s started about 35 years ago; we have already come a long way in understanding and treating the disease. In medicine, today’s breakthroughs are built on yesterday’s investments in basic science. One clinical trial builds on another and gives us clues to help the next.

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