Discussions for Chapel Hill: Why Finding Drugs to Treat Alzheimer’s Disease Is So Hard

August 25, 2016 | By Lorenzo Mejia

There are only 4 drugs that are approved to treat Alzheimer’s disease and of those in clinical trials, 99% never make it out of the trials. Scientists have had great success with cancer drugs by targeting mutations in cancer cells. These biomarkers can be measured and identified in blood tests or biopsies. Alzheimer’s has had a harder time pinpointing these markers. There are two markers in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients. One is the amyloid beta protein and the other is the tau protein. The amyloid beta forms plaques on the brain while the tau protein causes tangles in the brain. It is very difficult to find these proteins in the brain with everything else happening in the brain.

Finding a protein in the brain is like finding a grain of sand in a kiddie pool. When looking in cerebral spinal fluid, it is like a grain of sand in an Olympic pool. When you get to the blood, it is like finding a grain of sand in the ocean. Not being able to screen for these proteins means some people going into clinical trials might not actually have the disease which makes it more challenging to find a drug that is successful. Diagnostics have been getting better and now there are ways to image tau and amyloid protein in the brain as well as through spinal taps. These methods will be key in getting Alzheimer’s treatments that work.

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