Of Alzheimer's, Donepezil & Gorillas

Posted on: 08 March 2012 by Alexander Hay

There may be good news for sufferers of this terrible disease, both from the lab and from the heart of Africa...

Alzheimer's remains one of the great banes of our times, bringing great pain and ruin to thousands each year. However, there may be some good news:

Thousands of patients with advanced Alzheimer's disease could benefit from drugs, research suggests.

A study in the the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients who stayed on the dementia drug Aricept had a slower decline in their memory...

...The drugs were unable to halt the decline of patients, but they slowed it down.

The study's lead author, Professor Robert Howard from King's College London Institute of Psychiatry, said: "For the first time, we have robust and compelling evidence that treatment with these drugs can continue to help patients at the more severe stages.

"Patients who continued taking donepezil were about four months ahead in how they were able to remember, communicate and perform daily tasks than those who stopped taking the drugs...

Let us manage expectations here. 'Researchers say...”, as has often been noted on this site, is shorthand for 'it must be true!' amongst journalists who don't know the difference between redshift and a cytoplast. Nonetheless, this shows great promise, and more work needs to be done.

The only real issue is how the government will react to these findings. Which is to say, whether they will try to dodge coughing up for Aricept even as the number of older patients increases. A generic version of the drug exists, by the name of Donepezil, and costs £12 a month per patient, but that's still a lot of money, and the number of Alzheimer's sufferers – presently at 614,000, may rise to over one million in the next two decades.

Given previous form (keyword: Herceptin), the government may try to limit use. Every new breakthrough is, then, not always what it seems, and someone, somewhere won't want to pay for it.

Still, there's also good news from another – far more surprising – source. The recent sequencing of the gorilla genome has revealed that the big beasts have an immunity to degenerative brain disease, even though they have the same genes that cause these problems in humans. In other words, gorillas could help us cure Alzheimer's:

...After sequencing their genetic code, experts have found that 15 per cent of a gorilla’s DNA is closer to humans than a chimp’s.

The ‘shared’ pool includes genes involved in brain development and hearing, challenging the theory that humans’ sophisticated listening abilities evolved when we developed language...

...The research also revealed that certain variants of genes which cause genetic disease in humans – including one associated with dementia and another with heart failure – are common in gorillas but do not cause ill-health.

Scientists believe the findings could help establish how the conditions could be prevented...

Given how similar we are (beyond being able to drive buses and play the piano), it is an avenue well worth exploring. Meanwhile, inch by inch, a slow, uncertain victory against Alzheimer's gradually moves into view.

[SOURCES: BBC & Daily Mail]

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Alexander Hay

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