Drugs in Development
The first step in drug development is actually the most important—picking the right target. "Plaques being deposited, synaptic function being disrupted, mitochondria being damaged, and transport mechanisms changing. It is a challenge to pick the right target," Dr. Aisen explained.
Much drug research is focused on beta-amyloid. Drugs are being developed to prevent its buildup into plaques through slowing or stopping beta-amyloid production, enhancing its removal, inhibiting the clumping of beta-amyloid into oligomers and plaques, and dissolving existing plaques altogether. A number of other ongoing clinical trials are testing specific agents that target the two enzymes that cleave the amyloid precursor protein (APP) into shorter fragments, one of which is beta-amyloid. The amyloid cascade hypothesis suggests that those enzymes, when they cut APP to form beta-amyloid, execute the inciting event in a chain that may ultimately lead to AD.
Two of those enzymes, beta-secretase and gamma-secretase, are believed to work together to create the beta-amyloid peptides that form plaques in the brain, and are two of the points of intervention targeted by current drug development efforts. Until recently, beta-secretase had been difficult to work with because its shape does not lend itself easily to drug development. Finally, in early 2008, the results of the initial human testing of a drug candidate showed that the treatment was safe and well tolerated by healthy volunteers and led to a reduction in beta-amyloid levels in the plasma. Unlike beta-secretase, gamma-secretase is not a single molecule, but a complex of molecules. Because of this, it may be easier to interfere with its function since its complexity provides many potential targets. But gamma-secretase is essential to many other biological processes in the body, and any potential drug targeting its role in beta-amyloid production would have to work in a way that allows the enzyme to continue to perform its other normal functions.
Additional drug development efforts focus on the beta-amyloid peptide itself. One of the beta-amyloid-busting therapies farthest along in the drug development process is a vaccine currently being tested by Elan Pharmaceuticals, an innovative approach that we'll describe in depth later in the chapter.
Other broad strategies researchers are pursuing include attempts to prevent brain cell dysfunction and death by slowing oxidative stress, averting inflammation, or maintaining blood flow; increasing levels of neuroprotective molecules in the brain; or preserving the intricate network of connections among neurons. Dr. Lennart Mucke, a scientist recognized in the field for approaching Alzheimer's disease from as many angles as possible, thinks that, "in the future we will treat it like we treat other multi-factorial diseases. We will treat it like we treat hypertension, where, as a physician, you try to get away with giving the patient one drug that they can tolerate. Often you can't control the hypertension with one drug, because you get side effects, so you add another drug that has a mechanistically different route of attack. I believe that in the end, since Alzheimer's disease is so multifactorial, we will probably treat it with combinations of drugs. And I wouldn't be surprised if different patients required different combinations."
This suggests that the right path for Alzheimer's disease drug development is to follow every possible avenue and not just the ones that seem most likely to work. As Dr. Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad, the director of the Division of Neuroscience at National Institute on Aging, made clear, "Even if the amyloid hypothesis is correct, it doesn't mean that beta-amyloid is going to be the best or the only point of intervention for drug development. It could be tau, or a number of other therapeutic targets. The results of early-stage clinical trials targeting tau look promising and will be further tested in larger clinical trials."
As the largest funder of research into AD, the National Institute on Aging takes this multifactorial view of the disease very seriously. Dr. Morrison-Bogorad added, "Each piece of the puzzle is a possible intervention target. So our policy at the NIA is to cast a broad net and fund many promising avenues of research apart from beta-amyloid aimed at uncovering processes that contribute to the transition between normal aging and pathological changes resulting in Alzheimer's dementia."
Previous: Developing New Drug Treatments
Next: Practical Challenges
Excerpted from THE ALZHEIMER'S PROJECT: MOMENTUM IN SCIENCE, published by Public Affairs, www.publicaffairsbooks.com.
In This Section
- Building Cognitive Reserve
- Brain Efficiency
- The Role of Education
- Brain Building
- Personality Factors and Social Networks
- Assessing the Potential Benefits of Exercise and Diet
- Exercise and the Brain
- Diet and the Brain
- Developing New Drug Treatments
- Drugs in Development
- Practical Challenges
Momentum in Science: The Supplementary Series
- Understanding and Attacking Alzheimer's 12 min
- How Far We Have Come in Alzheimer's Research 15 min
- Identifying Mild Cognitive Impairment 20 min
- The Role of Genetics in Alzheimer's 12 min
- Advances in Brain Imaging 11 min
- Looking Into the Future of Alzheimer's 6 min
- The Connection Between Insulin and Alzheimer's 21 min
- Inflammation, the Immune System, and Alzheimer's 29 min
- The Benefit of Diet and Exercise in Alzheimer's 16 min
- Cognitive Reserve: What the Religious Orders Study is Revealing about Alzheimer's 20 min
- Searching for an Alzheimer's Cure: The Story of Flurizan 30 min
- The Pulse of Drug Development 15 min
- The DeMoe Family: Early-Onset Alzheimer's Genetics 25 min
- The Nanney/Felts Family: Late-Onset Alzheimer's Genetics 20 min
- The Quest for Biomarkers 17 min
Video: Inside the Brain: Unraveling the Mystery of Alzheimer's Disease
This 4-minute captioned video shows the progression of Alzheimer's disease in the brain.
Inside the Brain: An Interactive Tour
The Brain Tour explains how the brain works and how Alzheimer's affects it.
Alzheimer's Disease: Unraveling the Mystery
This book explains what AD is, describes the main areas in which researchers are working, and highlights new approaches for helping families and friends care for people with AD.
- About The Scientists
Connect with Alzheimer's Research
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- Rapid advances in our knowledge about AD have led to the development of promising new drugs and treatment strategies. However, before these new strategies can be used in clinical practice, they must be shown to work in people. Advances in prevention and treatment are only possible thanks to volunteers who participate in clinical trials.
- Among those touched by Alzheimer's (excluding self), nearly one-third provide support as a friend or relative, another 3% provide support as a healthcare professional, and the remaining two-thirds provide no support to the person suffering from Alzheimer's. When support is provided, it most often entails emotional support, followed by care-giving support. While small in comparison, more than one person in ten is providing financial support. Read more.