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Apodaca: Alzheimer's research: a race against time

September 20, 2013|By Patrice Apodaca

More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, including 75,000 in Orange County. By mid-century, those numbers could nearly triple, according to current projections.

That's a frightening prospect. Most of us know someone who has suffered from this cruel, heart-wrenching disease, and have witnessed firsthand how it robs its victims of their memories and reasoning capacity, erasing the very essence of self as brains literally waste away.

But the scary projections are also motivating some medical researchers to work furiously to find ways to stop the disease, or at least delay its progress. Prominent among them is Dr. Frank LaFerla, director of UC Irvine's Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders — UCI MIND for short — a leading center of Alzheimer's research.

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I previously wrote about LaFerla and UCI MIND more than a year-and-a-half ago, explaining that the institute was conducting promising research into stem cell therapy to treat Alzheimer's.

Now, as September is recognized as World Alzheimer's Month, some recent developments have added another note of urgency to LaFerla's work.

Sadly, those developments include some stunning failures in the world of Alzheimer's research, a series of disappointing results and contested findings that threatened to cast a depressing shadow on the field.

But when it comes to the scientific process, failures can often lead to tantalizing clues that can in turn improve our knowledge and help fine-tune methods of attack. And so amid the setbacks, a groundswell of opinion seems to be emerging that Alzheimer's research should focus on earlier intervention, innovative ideas and a commitment to understanding the disease's unique complexities.

Currently, Alzheimer's isn't diagnosed until symptoms like memory loss and confusion are already plainly visible. But evidence is increasingly leading scientists to believe that by that point patients might be too far gone to be helped.

"It could be we're intervening way too late," LaFerla said. By the time the brain lesions known as plaques and tangles have appeared, "it's like trying to put out a large fire with one bucket of water."

So researchers are searching for a diagnostic tool to be used long before symptoms manifest. It's the same concept employed to preemptively treat other major health issues: High cholesterol levels and blood pressure, for instance, are known precursors of heart disease that can be medically managed.

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