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Not a lot of people noticed, but a piece of news released at the end of January could mean the most significant scientific breakthrough in the fight against Alzheimer’s Disease so far. A team of scientists from Australia and Japan was able to identify toxic Alzheimer’s proteins in the blood of people affected by the disease. The test was 90% accurate according to the paper, published by the journal Nature.
That could mean that a blood test to detect Alzheimer’s would be available anytime soon. Currently, the only way to diagnose the disease is through its symptoms, like memory loss.
Alzheimer's disease starts many years before patients have any symptoms of the brain damage. A blood test could enable physicians to identify it much earlier, opening the doors for new research on treatments to tackle the disease in its early stages.
Bill Gates joins the fight
Another announcement that called my attention these days was Bill Gates’ 100 million pledge to fight Alzheimer’s. The tech mogul is donating $ 50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, an organization focusing on innovative research. The other $ 50 million will fund a national patient registry, to speed up recruitment for clinical trials, creating a groundbreaking international database for research that will help scientists share data and collaborate with one another.
Gates’ objectives are, on one side, to bring up new ideas that could help develop drugs for Alzheimer’s treatment in the next 10 to 15 years. In the other, to “figure out ... when does the Alzheimer's get started? When would you need to treat somebody to completely avoid them getting Alzheimer's?”, he said in an interview to the Today Show.
Over 5.5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. As baby boomers approach their 60 and 70 years of age, chances are many of them will suffer from the disease and will need specialized dementia care and home care. In 2017, total payments exceeded a quarter of a trillion dollars ($259 billion) for caring for individuals living with Alzheimer’s or other dementias, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The number of people with Alzheimer’s is estimated to triple by 2050.
Could the cure come from the oceans?
However, there is
The researchers at the MBL (part of the University of Chicago), are studying the nervous system of the sea lamprey to understand chemical changes that could help find the cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other brain-related diseases. The sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) is an aggressive parasite that is considered a pest in many regions, including the U.S. Great Lakes.
At the MBL, researchers study it for two reasons. The first is that the lamprey’s neurons are huge, many times larger than human neurons. That makes it easier to see how they react to drugs and substances related to Alzheimer’s disease, on the microscope.
The other reason the lamprey is useful in human disease research is that its spinal cord regenerates completely, after being sectioned. In humans, a spinal cord sectioned often means a lifetime of paralysis. The lamprey, instead, has all movements restored in weeks after that damage. Their research aims to find which substances, genes, and mechanisms are related to this regeneration, which could lead not only to a cure for spinal cord injury but also to the recovery of brain cells that die in neural diseases, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Research is advancing everywhere
Looking into Alzheimer’s research all over the US and the world, there are good reasons for excitement. At Duke University, for example, scientists published another groundbreaking study last year. They found evidence that the immune system could be behind the mechanisms that lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
In other parts of the country and Colombia, biotech companies have started large-scale clinical studies for the first drugs to treat Alzheimer’s. They developed substances that connect to Alzheimer’s proteins called beta-amyloid in the brain and allow the immune system to identify them and destroy them. Some early results were encouraging, and they could lead to the first treatment as early as in 2020.
Another huge and exciting scientific advancement in the search for the cure came from the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), earlier in December. Using LED lights flickering at a specific frequency, MIT researchers have shown that they can substantially reduce the beta-amyloid plaques in the visual cortex of mice.
“If humans behave similarly to mice in response to this treatment, I would say the potential is just enormous, because it’s so noninvasive, and it’s so accessible,” says Li-Huei Tsai, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience, in a statement released by the MIT.
Be part of the solution
What is the big motion force behind all these developments against Alzheimer’s? I would say that it is funding. Behind of each one of these initiatives, there are organizations and individuals like Bill Gates mobilizing a huge amount of resources to make it happen.
So, I would suggest everyone donated to a non-profit organization sponsoring research against Alzheimer’s Disease. Just imagine: we could see it over, in our lifetime, in one of the most groundbreaking achievements of the human spirit. And we could be proud that we helped to make it happen.
- Peter DiMaria is the owner of Home Helpers, a Home Care provider in North Central CT and Western MA. He is a certified Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care Trainer, member of the board of North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce; member of the Advisory Board for Stone Academy; and a Guest Lecturer at Enfield Adult and Continuing Education, on the subjects of Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia Care.