Searching for a Cure: Obstacles and Achievements in Alzheimer’s Research

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Written by Hannah Bergstrom

In the documentary Turning Point (2018), acclaimed director James Keach follows a team of medical researchers as they attempt to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The gripping and at times emotionally raw documentary captures the intimate details of a clinical trial as researchers test a drug for a disease that has no cure.

In the United States alone, 5.7 million people are affected by Alzheimer’s disease, making it the sixth leading cause of death and placing significant burdens on the U.S. healthcare system. This heartbreaking disease progressively deteriorates the brain—affecting the person’s memories, relationships, and independence. Many of us have seen these effects in relatives and people we love. The team of researchers in Turning Point have also experienced this reality as they’ve watched parents, grandparents, and patients suffer from Alzheimer’s—making their passion to find a cure a deeply personal pursuit.

Currently, it is agreed that Alzheimer’s is characterized by a buildup of amyloid protein (or plaques) in the brain, and the formulation of tangled masses of fibers called tau. However, scientists do not know whether these plaques and tangles are causes or symptoms of the disease, making it extremely challenging to find a medication for prevention and treatment. In Turning Point, the researchers tested solanezumab—a drug they hoped would inhibit the buildup of amyloid proteins and in turn slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. In its early stages the drug attracted media attention and was highly anticipated as a breakthrough cure for the disease. However, in 2016 the clinical trial was halted as patients failed to show significant improvement. This setback was devastating, but does not mark the end of drug research for Alzheimer’s. Frank Logo, Chair of Neurology at the Stanford Neuroscience Health Center, said, “Even if it’s unfortunate news, each trial is tending to teach us a lot… and it’s giving many in the field confidence that we will have a drug that does work at some point”.

Despite the challenges and setbacks of finding a cure, promising research in the prevention of the disease is underway. Innovations in imaging technology such as PET scans and MRIs are used to diagnose the disease, and researchers believe such tests will become even more critical in monitoring treatment and advancing early detection capabilities. According to John Dunlop, Vice President of Neuroscience Research at Amgen, “Despite recent failures, we have learned a lot and have much reason to be optimistic. This is particularly true when it comes to early intervention approaches…” Dunlop is not alone in his optimism, as scientists move forward with clinical trials and experimental research to detect Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages and attempt to slow its progression.

Alzheimer’s disease is heartbreaking for everyone affected, but that’s not the only reason why finding a cure is imperative. America’s population is aging at a rate we haven’t seen before. According to the United States Census Bureau, by 2035 there will be more people over the age of 65 than there are people under the age of 18—an unprecedented demographic shift that the U.S. healthcare system is not prepared for. As the population ages, the number of people affected by Alzheimer’s will increase, and the cost of treating these patients will become insurmountable. In 2018 alone, it is expected that it will cost Medicare $140 billion to treat patients with Alzheimer’s disease. This cost will expand into billions and trillions of dollars as the population ages unless treatment to delay the progression of Alzheimer’s is found.

Alzheimer’s disease places significant monetary and emotional burdens on society, and Turning Point shows the people at the forefront of tackling these obstacles. However, facing the immense challenge of curing Alzheimer’s cannot rest in the hands of a few researchers. We must mobilize communities to have a dialogue about this disease, and work as individuals, organizations, and government bodies to find a cure.