Catch it early.
Those are watchwords in the battle against a host of illnesses, from heart disease to cancer to Type 2 diabetes. Early detection gives physicians a chance to minimize damage, to insert a stent and keep blood flowing to the heart, to remove a tumor before one becomes many, to urge crucial lifestyle changes: lose weight, eat better, exercise.
But can the strategy work for Alzheimer’s disease? Scientists are starting to think it might.
The Harvard Aging Brain Study, now in its seventh year, has shown that amyloid beta, the protein thought to cause Alzheimer’s, accumulates in the brain a decade or more before symptoms occur.
That finding has given new hope to researchers struggling to move beyond a rash of high-profile Alzheimer’s failures in clinical drug trials. In February, drug maker Merck & Co. halted a study, just three months after Eli Lilly & Co. announced a trial failure. Several additional drugs are still in trials, but researchers are reconsidering their approach and wondering whether the problem is in trying to reverse, rather than prevent, dementia.
“I think we’ve failed in 11 phase 3 trials, which is not a good track record,” said Reisa Sperling, a neurology professor at Harvard Medical School, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and co-director of the Harvard Aging Brain Study at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). “From a clinical point of view, it’s a dismal failure.”
Now, the “catch it early” idea is being put to the test in a new study called A4, or Anti-Amyloid Treatment in Asymptomatic Alzheimer’s Disease, led by Sperling and the University of Southern California’s Paul Aisen. Researchers will try an anti-amyloid drug on people who show no signs of Alzheimer’s cognitive decline, but who do have abnormally high levels of amyloid beta in their brains.