Innovation/Global Risk

Alzheimer’s:  Major Progress

By Shlomo  Maital



Gordie Howe


Major progress has been made in diagnosing and treating the form of dementia known as Alzheimer’s.   Some 26 m. people suffer from it today, worldwide, and according to Johns Hopkins Medical School, that number will rise to over 100 m. by 2050, as populations age. 

  The BBC, which covers Alzheimer’s research very well, just announced some major breakthroughs.

  First, diagnosis.  New developments in the use of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) now enable doctors to pinpoint the presence of amyloid protein, which is thought to cause Alzheimer’s by short-circuiting the brain’s delicate wiring, years before dementia develops. 

  Second, disease.   Columbia U. and Harvard U. researchers may have discovered how the disease progresses – almost virally, with it spreading from one brain cell to another. 

    “Alzheimer’s disease appears to spread like a virus from one brain cell to another, a groundbreaking discovery that could help stop the debilitating disease in its tracks, researchers say.   Two independent studies by teams of Columbia and Harvard researchers looked at the brains of mice and found that the degenerative brain disease begins in one small part of the brain and spreads through an abnormal protein known as tau, which is seen in Alzheimer’s-affected brains.  It’s long been known that dying, tau-filled cells are an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease. They first appear in the entorhinal cortex, a small area of the brain behind the ears that controls memory and navigation and form tangles. The disease then spreads to other areas of the brain.”

  Third, treatment.  Work proceeds apace on developing a drug, or vaccine, which would produce antibodies that would suck the amyloid protein out of the brain, almost like a vacuum cleaner.   The leading candidate is a drug under development by Eli Lilly. 

    “Lilly’s latest contender, solanezumab, is designed to bind to and mop up a protein called amyloid beta, the main component of amyloid plaque deposits in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.  Anticipation over the drug has built up slowly. Lilly is expected to release as soon as this summer final data from two 18-month studies of the treatment. Earlier this week, the company said an independent safety monitor had given researchers the green light to continue with the late-stage trials.”  Pfizer, too, has an Alzheimer’s drug under development.

   The most touching news comes from my childhood idol, Saskatchewan-born hockey player Gordie Howe.  After his wife Colleen died of dementia, Howe has been raising money for a foundation that funds dementia research.  He makes 4-5 appearances a month. It is rumored Howe himself, now 84, may suffer from it, although he denies it.  Howe played hockey in an age when players did not wear helmets.  He must have taken many blows to the head. Yet, developing dementia at his advanced age cannot be directly attributed to his hockey-playing days.   Howe’s son Murray said:  “As your parents age, they will almost all deal with something along these lines.  It’s so important to get together as a family and have a plan to make sure your parents are taken care of. It’s really easy to ignore.”