Bleak Future for Dementia Research: Two Cure Attempts Fail

Two drug trials administered to pre-diagnosed dementia patients failed, leaving the pharmaceutical community with no immediate options.

Over the course of five years, the studies were carried out on healthy participants who were guaranteed to develop Alzheimer’s disease aiming to prevent the ailment before the onset of symptoms. Unfortunately, they have begun their ill-fated cognitive decline, crushing the hopes of the pharmaceutical industry for the near future.


The trials were sponsored by Washington University in St. Louis, two companies that produced the drugs (Roche and Eli Lilly), the National Institutes of Health and other benefactors. According to Dr. Randall Bateman, a neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis and the study’s principal investigator, the verdict of the study “was really crushing.”


The disease follows an observed course: amyloid accumulates in the brain, causing a tangled protein, tau, to form hard plaques. The result is mass neuron death, causing dementia symptoms.


The study, known as DIAN-TU, involved 194 participants carrying gene mutations that would eventually lead to an overproduction of amyloid, thus causing Alzheimer’s disease. As these participants were years younger than usual dementia patients and presented no symptoms, success in the trial would confirm the existence of a cure to Alzheimer’s.

The logo for the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer Network Trials Unit, shortened to DIAN TU. [Image credit: Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis]
However, though the recent experiments were unsuccessful, the issues could be fixed; there was possibly a dosage issue, and the researchers may have begun the study on patients a few years too late. A minority of investigators are even spearheading new treatment options, entirely abandoning the hypothesis that cerebral amyloid plaques cause Alzheimer’s disease. 


The National Institute on Aging has granted even more research funds for another study on genetic mutations. Anti-amyloid drugs would be administered earlier this time, up to decades before the onset of symptoms. Many targets beyond amyloid would also receive drug trials.


In the past, there have already been over 300 failed drug trials aimed at curing Alzheimer’s. There exist only four treatments that attempt to alleviate the onset of symptoms, but none to prevent the inevitable fate of Alzheimer’s patients. “We don’t have anything now to treat these people,” said Dr. Bateman. 

Hope for treatment, which has been somehwat damaged following the failures of these recent Alzheimer’s trials, remains an important factor in the relationship between medical practitioners and patients. [Image credit: The BMJ]
Though the imminent prospects for an Alzheimer’s cure are quite grim, researchers have historically triumphed over once-thought-to-be incurable diseases with innovative breakthroughs. Examples include the discovery of gastric intrinsic factor to treat Addison’s anemia or the uncovering of insulin to assuage diabetes. 


“Life is an error-making and error-correcting process,” said Dr. Jonas Salk, the researcher celebrated for creating the first polio vaccine. With every new round of studies comes a renewed hope for the future of medical research.