Health & Family

Research on Alzheimer's drugs at a crossroads

This year was supposed to herald the arrival of the first Alzheimer's disease-modifying drug, which pharmaceutical experts predict will be a multimillion-dollar product. Instead, it's been marked by two failed clinical trials. The arrival of such a disease-modifying medication is now unlikely before 2010.

Alzheimer's disease research is at a crossroads, according to several scientists attending this week's meeting of the Alzheimer's Association 2008 International Conference in Chicago. Though technology to detect the condition early is advancing rapidly, there is still no way to halt or reverse the devastating disease.

Five Alzheimer's disease medications are available. But all of these drugs treat the symptoms of the disease, such as memory problems and mental confusion. They do not cure, halt or even slow the disease process, and a review published earlier this year concluded that the drugs produce few, if any, benefits.

More in the pipeline

As dissatisfaction with these options grows, leading researchers in the field insist they are in heavy pursuit of something that will improve the lives of the great gray wave of Americans entering their retirement years.

“We have a long way to go,” says Dr. Paul Aisen, a leading Alzheimer's researcher at the University of California, San Diego. “However, I have no doubt we are making progress and that major advances can be expected in the next few years. It's a devastating disease. We need to move very quickly.”

The setbacks have not convinced scientists that the disease is incurable. Dozens of other experimental medications are in the pipeline, Aisen says, and every day researchers are learning more about the disease.