Technology & Science

Alzheimer's research focuses on slowing disease

People with Alzheimer's disease aren't faring much better than when the disease was discovered 100 years ago, but research is beginning to pay off.

People with Alzheimer's disease aren't faring much better than when the disease was discovered 100 years ago, but research is beginning to pay off.

Nearly 300,000 Canadians are living with Alzheimer's disease, which slowly leads to memory impairment, behavioural changes and dementia, affecting how people understand, think, remember and communicate.

"It's eating away at the brain, almost like an electric short circuit," said Dave Fost, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's 12 years ago.

Fost, 72, forgets things and loses words in conversation but still functions well, which he credits to a positive attitude and effort.

"Be positive, be productive, never quit," Fost advises, whileknowing that one day he may not be able to recognize his wife and may need to be institutionalized.

Drugs help with some symptoms of Alzheimer's but do little to slow the disease. Dr. Peter McCracken, an Alzheimer's specialist at Edmonton's Glenrose Hospital, believes that could change.

"We're knocking on the door to have some potent agents that may significantly alter the course of the disease," McCracken said.

Stoptoxicity, slowdisease

Dr. JoAnne McLaurin's laboratory at the University of Toronto's Centre for Research and Neurodegenerative Diseases is one of several around the world that is racing to bring a new class of Alzheimer's drugs to the market.

The drugs would attack theplaque that builds up in the brains of people with the disease.

"All the treatments that we're looking at so far don't actually try to recover neurons or actually regenerate the neurons," McLaurin said. "All they're doing is stopping the toxicity associated with the disease."

The drug candidates have stopped the disease in mice, but no one knows how well they will work in people. The first clinical trials are expected next year, anddepending on the results,a new drug could be available in two to four years.

While the potential drugs cannot reverse damage in people with Alzheimer's, they holdout thepromise of substantially slowing it, buying some valuable years foranyone who may face the disease in the future.

"Delaying onset by only five years would translate into a 50 per cent reduction in the number of cases worldwide," said Dr. Judes Poirier, director of Montreal's McGill Centre for Studies in Aging.

Poirier and his colleagues have also discovered that people who have uncontrolled hypertension, high cholesterol levels or diabetes at mid-life are at risk of developing Alzheimer's.

Giving anti-diabetic drugs now on the market to people with Alzheimer's has shown surprising success, Poirier said. Cholesterol and blood pressure medications also had some effect in slowing the decline from the disease, according to research presented in July at an international Alzheimer's conference in Spain.