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Decreased Funding Causes Slow Progress in Alzheimer’s Research

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Correction: KPBS incorrectly identified memantine or Namenda as the first drug to be approved by the FDA for Alzheimer's disease. In fact, Namenda is the most recent drug to be approved by the FDA for Alzheimer's. The script below has been corrected.


Eighty-one-year-old Antonia Lopez has enjoyed a full life, proudly raising seven children. She is still able to do things for herself. But at 77, she began noticing significant changes. Her daughters would soon find out Lopez was battling Alzheimer’s. A secret they’ve kept from their mother until this day.

Maria Navarro: She started forgetting things, concerned, neurologist, because you are getting old, she started getting worse and worse.

As they reminisce through old pictures, the most painful for Maria Navarro, and her siblings– that their mother doesn’t recognize them anymore. For now, the sisters take comfort in caring for her.

Maria: The worst thing not recognizing family – sometimes calling the youngest boy or girl – more attached to them always wanted them to be near her. The rest was vanishing.

The vanishing of Lopez’ memory may have slowed down since she began taking the experimental drug Reminyl – or Glantamine. She also takes mind activating vitamins to help.

Maria: I think medication helped control --takes anti-depression not crying, most time happy… not very active but not sad think medication has helped.

There are five primary drugs on the market today – another nine drugs are already in the third phase of clinical trials. There is an-urgency among scientist around the world to find new therapies to treat Alzheimer’s and more importantly to find a cure.

They are: Aricept, Cognex, Exelon, Namenda and Razadyne. These drugs are capable of preventing or stopping the progress of the brain-wasting disease.

World-renowned doctor Stuart Lipton helped develop Memantine or Namenda, the most recent therapy to treat Alzheimer’s to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Lipton is now the director of the neuroscience and aging center at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla -- one of four top research labs in San Diego. Lipton is on a quest for answers to solve the mysteries surrounding Alzheimer’s.

Suart Lipton, M.D, Burnham Institute Medical Research: One hais to understand the complex disease is difficult – more difficult is coming up with a treatment the brain can tolerate. Most drugs fail not because they don’t have some action that’s beneficial – because the human brain when we try to interfere with the process sometimes we do more harm than good.

Scientists believe that beta-amyloid – a protein that builds up in the brain kills neurons or nerve cells, permanently destroying the lives of millions of Americans battling Alzheimer’s. Despite the medical advances – there’s still much more to learn about the potentially deadly illness.

Lipton: Oxygen and nitrogen molecules that can attach and disrupt the way proteins fold. Proteins have many affects, channels membranes you need them to fold properly to act properly – just like a put on my coat this morning if I didn’t have it fold properly it wouldn’t function to keep me warm.

For years, scientists have been developing a vaccine to treat Alzheimer’s. It seemed promising, but the vaccine caused significant side effects in humans – like brain inflammation. The medical field is now hopeful that stem-cell research could hold the answer. Already stem cells have the potential to grow into any type of human tissue.

Scientists are now working on growing the blank cell into specific cells, which could ultimately help treat many diseases – including Alzheimer’s.

Lipton: There’s another branch were you try to recreate the disease in a dish and now you can put human cells in a dish. You don’t have mouse/rat you actually have human cells – you can do screening you can look for drugs that can affect human cells. Another is cell based replacement therapies where we take stem cells try to grow them stem cells of gleo – and we’ve had some success with this.

As nearly five million Americans battle the disease – scientists in the U.S. are facing a major hurtle -- federal funding continues to decrease -- translating into less money for research. But California could be the exception.

In 2004, California voters helped pass proposition 71, the controversial bond measure that will allocate $3 billion for human embryonic stem cell research. Scientists know every bit helps in the search for medical answers.

But the future isn’t so positive for the rest of the nation. Experts say federal funding for Alzheimer’s research has been slashed $100 million in the last four years – and it could get worse. The House Appropriations committee is expected to cut funding again, by $7 million this year alone. Expert and book author David Shenk sees an irreversible trend in the research field.

David Shenk: We don’t have federal money, lure young students into research need grants they need.

Obtaining those grants is critical to helping millions of patients suffering with the disease now and for those who will develop Alzheimer’s in the future.

Dr. William Thies: Ultimately, the federal government will pay one way or another. Most who have the disease are on Medicare or Medicaid -- that’s a government program. It cost a lot of money. The investment in research is tiny compared to that. It’s difficult to get government to focus putting more into research and save a great deal of money down the road.

Doctors believe people can do simple things to change the course of Alzheimer’s; stopping it before it develops. Eating low fat diets, large amounts of foods high in anti-oxidants, like blueberries. Omega-3 in rosemary has shown a 60-percent reduction in Alzheimer’s cases. Red wine and grapes also help because of an anti-oxidant compound which breaks down amyloids – the substance that causes plaque in the brain.

As scientists work tirelessly to find new therapies that can one day successfully treat and ultimately cure Alzheimer’s – there’s hope.

Lipton: For now, it’s a minimal affect but it’s an affect. It warms my heart look at numbers and cases patients who weren’t recognizing caregivers, loved ones recognize them again.

And for families like the Lopez – the hope is that a cure could be found soon.

Maria: I just hope they find something to cure the damage. Her brain will not be recovered ever, but at least to stop the damage then continue her life like it is right now, that it doesn’t progress where she can’t walk or eat. I just hope that.

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