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A Cure for Alzheimer's?

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In a time of tight budgets and widespread demand for less government spending, Congress, the White House and a growing number of candidates for president from both parties agree that at least one priority should receive more money - research into the causes and possible cures of Alzheimer's disease.

In January, Congress and the President signed off on a $350 million funding increase for Alzheimer's research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) - a 60 percent hike pushing the total for research spending over the $900 million mark for the first time.

At the same time, three GOP presidential candidates - Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump- have called for stepped up funding for Alzheimer's research, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has laid out a plan to increase funding to $2 billion annually by 2025.

The consensus on the need for new research dollars comes from two increasingly compelling facts - one grim and the other a cause for celebration.

First, the bad news: Alzheimer's is now the most expensive disease in America, with care for it and other forms of dementia costing more than $226 billion last year. Without a cure, as the population grows older, the bill to families, employers, insurers and the government is going to skyrocket. Over the next 35 years, more than 28 million baby boomers will develop Alzheimer's, according to research presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference. Costs associated with care will soar to approximately $20 trillion cumulatively, eating up, by 2040, a quarter of our Medicare spending.

But the grim toll of Alzheimer's - on our loved ones, friends and our economy - is not the sole reason research funding is growing. The other is hope.

Across the spectrum of research, we are seeing results - advances that let us know that more money for studies of the brain, of the human genome, of drugs and other options to delay or cure Alzheimer's are, in fact, a promising use of our dollars.

One reason for that optimism is research at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, funded in part by Cure Alzheimer's Fund and undertaken by neuroscientists Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi and Dr. Doo Yeon Kim, which has resulted in a dramatically promising path forward - one that provides new opportunities for intervention and hopefully one day a cure. 'Alzheimer's in a Dish' accurately captures this landmark development.

Simply put: Tanzi and Kim have been able to attach Alzheimer's genes to brain cell neurons in a petri dish, and for the first time, to watch as the disease spreads to healthy brain tissue. That result, as one international researcher put it, is a 'game changer.'

Mice don't get Alzheimer's - only humans do - and prior to Alzheimer's in a Dish, weeks or months could be spent simply getting the brains of mice to a point with Alzheimer's where research could start. Even then, mice developed an imprecise version of the disease. Now, researchers around the world are able to mimic a brain under attack from the 'plaques' and 'tangles' that characterize Alzheimer's, and test thousands of different drugs and drug therapy combinations quickly and cheaply in the search for effective treatments. This means that every day there is a far better chance that we find something to stymie the growth of this terrible disease. There are several promising areas of our research focus, including:

  • Microbiomes: The largest group of human microbial cells live in the intestinal tract. New research suggests that microbes in our stomach can impact the progression of early Alzheimer's.
  • Anti-microbials: researchers are exploring the relationship between Abeta, an anti-bacterial agent that lives in the brain and is one of the key components leading to the development of Alzheimer's, and the environment to see if there are environmental triggers to the disease.
  • Gamma secretase: The NIH recently fast-tracked promising research for the development of drugs that modify the gamma secretase enzyme, which is a critical contributor to Abeta production. At least two drugs focusing on this enzyme and Abeta production will soon enter clinical trials.

Organizations like Cure Alzheimer's Fund and others are critical to this process. Without our early funding, many researchers would never be able to advance their ideas to a point where they could apply to the NIH for additional funds. But there is no doubt that more resources are needed. By committing to an increase in funding and to continued collaboration among researchers and institutions, we can achieve even more progress. We can lengthen the leaps we are making toward a cure; provide researchers with the ability to go down new, unexplored paths; retain smart young scientists in the field, and keep experienced scientists there.

But mostly, our increased national consensus to cure Alzheimer's will provide hope for millions of children, family and friends who want one thing more than any other - a cure for the terrible disease that afflicts the people they love.