Finding a cure for Alzheimer’s or a drug that will even meaningfully slow progression of the disease is the Holy Grail for drug companies. However, the more we discover about the disease, the more we recognize its complexities. Perhaps the solution isn’t a single wonder drug, but rather a combination of drug therapies that can attack Alzheimer’s from a variety of angles. Combination drug therapies have dramatically improved the treatment of HIV, cancer, and even heart disease. Is Alzheimer’s the next frontier?
While progress on the cure for Alzheimer’s has been slow, researchers are learning more and more about the disease. We’ve learned, for example, that a variety of factors can contribute to Alzheimer’s. The disease itself is likely caused by the build-up of amyloid plaques and tau tangles. Some studies have also found a link between the disease and brain inflammation. There also seems to be a genetic link to Alzheimer’s, with individuals more likely to inherit the disease if a close relative had it. Research suggests that the gene apolipoprotein E (APOE) may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.
So, should drug companies focus on scrubbing the brain of amyloid plaques or busting tau tangles? What about soothing brain inflammation or trying to switch off the APOE gene? The Alzheimer’s Association and the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation think the solution might be “All of the Above.”
The History of Combination Drug Therapy
Anyone who came of age in the 80s remembers how brutally the AIDS epidemic tore through the country. In the early years of the epidemic, it seemed like nothing could stop it. Researchers discovered that HIV/AIDS was a complicated disease that would actually develop resistance to single drug therapies. After much refinement, the medical community offered up an antiviral cocktail; a combination of drugs that attacked the disease on a variety of fronts and made it impossible for the disease to adapt.
The results were dramatic. An HIV diagnosis used to be a virtual death sentence. These days, HIV/AIDS patients are much more likely to live a long and relatively healthy life. HIV has, in some sense, become a disease to manage, rather than a ticking time bomb. Can we possibly see the same revolutionary change with a disease like Alzheimer’s?
Creating a Combination Drug Therapy for Alzheimer’s
Recently, the Alzheimer’s Association and Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation partnered to develop the Alzheimer’s Combination Therapy Opportunities (ACTO) grant initiative. This grant offers $2 million in funding for “testing approaches that simultaneously target two or more processes believed to underlie, exacerbate, or occur in the disease,” according to a detailed article in Scientific American.
So far, efforts to develop combination therapies for Alzheimer’s have been limited. The reasons, according to Scientific American include the fact that drug companies don’t have a diverse pipeline of Alzheimer’s drugs and that many companies are wary of sharing proprietary research with potential competitors.
There is hope, however. The article highlights a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience that found a combination drug treatment reduced amyloid plaque buildup in the brains of mice more effectively than any of the drugs alone.
Certainly, these early trials won’t be very useful if you have a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s today, but if that person is a blood-relative, then today’s drug combination trials could make a huge difference to you and your other family members in the future.
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