Six or so years ago, Frank Longo, MD, PhD, Stanford’s chair of neurology and neurological sciences, was optimistic that a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease was on its way. More than a decade earlier, pharmaceutical companies had begun testing drugs to eradicate one of its hallmark signs—clumps of protein sprinkled randomly throughout the brain. The drugs were antibodies that bind to the protein, called beta amyloid, or A-beta for short.
“They poured a lot of money into clinical trials of these antibodies in Alzheimer’s patients,” Longo said. “And by around five years ago, with the conclusion of early-stage trials, it looked like they might succeed. So, many in the field—including me—had some guarded optimism that when the pivotal phase-3 trials were completed, this approach would have at least some beneficial effect.”
On the order of 30 million people worldwide, including more than 5 million Americans, have Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, which raids the brain and steals a person’s ability to remember, reason and imagine. Barring substantial progress in curing or preventing it, Alzheimer’s will affect 16 million U.S. residents by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The group also reports that the disease is now the nation’s most expensive, costing over $200 billion a year. Recent analyses suggest it may be as great a killer as cancer or heart disease.