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Are they barking up the wrong tree for a cure?

Alzheimer’s research hit a bit of an impasse last week. Pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer announced that it’s pulling out of it which seemed, at first glance and from where I’m standing – alongside My Loved One and the ever-predatory Ms Alzheimer’s –  pretty damned negative.

But read beyond the headline. It’s still negative but, in fairness, you can see Pfizer’s point of view. Their aim has been to find and develop a drug which will make a real difference. In the last fifteen years 99% of clinical trials have ended in failure. So – objective thinking and all that – it’s hardly good business to throw any more money at it. And it isn’t just Pfizer either. Eli Lilly in the US and Roche and Merck in Europe have all seen their “breakthrough” Alzheimer’s drugs fail at the final testing.

Scientists and commentators are beginning to hint that we may be getting ahead of ourselves. We simply don’t (yet) understand the connections in the brain. Received wisdom – all the way back to the eponymous Dr Alois Alzheimer who, in 1906, conducted an autopsy on a patient with memory problems and observed sticky clumps between the dead and dying cells – cites amyloid protein as the culprit.  But, it seems, drugs to combat these clumps of amyloid  don’t work so is the cause actually something else? Back to the drawing board, a mere one hundred and eleven years later. Some are saying that we need to return to basic brain research because we still don’t understand the workings of a normal brain well enough to be able to work out what happens when dementia sets in.

Other scientists take an avertive line. They want to find ways of identifying the disease a decade or two before its symptoms start to show because perhaps then the amyloid could be destroyed or dispersed with drugs in good time. The theory is, that once the patient, has become forgetful, clumsy, sleepy or whatever the disease has already taken hold and it’s too late to do anything about it.

Or perhaps they should focus on why – if it has – amyloid has built up in MLO’s brain but not in mine? What are the factors which allow it to happen?

And where does it all  leave MLO – a statistic in a huge horrifying, downward spiral. He is one of 850,000 dementia sufferers in the UK. Most of these have Alzheimer’s. One person in ten over 65 has dementia and one person in three if you are fortunate (or should that be unfortunate?) enough to live to be over 85. The current cost to the UK economy is £26m per year. Obviously, the figures are rising continuously.

This is unsustainable. If they don’t soon find some sort of drug to alleviate Alzheimer’s effectively then within twenty years we shall have voluntary (or maybe even involuntary) euthanasia for economic reasons. Ethics and morality will be luxuries that we, and other developed nations won’t be able to afford.

I’m sure  the efficacious treatment (or the hideous alternative) will come too late to make any difference to us. MLO and his 849,999 fellow sufferers simply have to cope with life as best they can for as long as they can. There are drugs at the moment but medics don’t seem to have much faith in them. They just keep telling you firmly that the disease is incurable. MLO is prescribed memantine which might – or maybe it’s my wishful imagination – be making him a little more alert.

It’s a horrible disease but, as I keep telling MLO, things could be a lot worse. He is still physically pretty good and can walk about and climb stairs although he’s much slower than formerly. Nothing hurts and there is no prospect of invasive surgery or debilitating treatment as would be the case with, say, cancer.  And after all research hasn’t stopped altogether. Always look on the bright side. …

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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