JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, a new plan for tackling the ever-growing burden of Alzheimer’s disease and targeting specific drugs to fight it. Margaret Warner has our story.
MARGARET WARNER: The numbers are daunting. More than five million Americans now suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. And barring a breakthrough, the figure could triple by 2050.
That prospect prompted the first-ever national Alzheimer’s plan mandated by Congress and formally announced today. The secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, set a deadline of 2025 to find effective ways to prevent and treat the disease.
SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: So a short time ago, the fight against Alzheimer’s lacked a national focus and a consistent, coordinated partnership with the nation’s Alzheimer’s community. Today, we have made the first historic investment of funds and a 15-year commitment to prevention and treatment.
MARGARET WARNER: The bulk of the new money, $50 million already approved this year and $100 million in 2013, will go for research. So far, there’s no cure. The research focus will be on testing the most promising new therapies, including an insulin nasal spray and a drug to prevent the buildup of a protein associated with Alzheimer’s.
The plan also includes a new Alzheimers.gov Web site offering struggling families information on available federal and community resources.
MAN: My wife’s Alzheimer’s, diagnosed it very early because we had had the experience of my mother. And I knew from behavior, not forgetting, as much as just general behavior, that there was something seriously wrong with her.
MARGARET WARNER: And it provides training for health care providers in identifying and managing the disease.
And for more on all this, we turn to two people involved with the new Alzheimer’s plan. Dr. Francis Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health, which is funding key trials, including two announced today. And Eric Hall is president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, which offered input in designing the plan.
Dr. Collins, welcome to you.
There are elements here that we have heard a lot about before, research, education, outreach. What is new and different in this plan?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, director, National Institutes of Health: Well, first of all, let me say I think there is a new sense of excitement in the scientific community about the potential for making real strides in understanding what causes this disease and how to intervene just in the last two or three years in research coming from genomics, coming from an understanding of stem cells, coming from the able to identify new potential drug targets.
The field is energized. And so it is the right time, both given the enormous public health significance and the significance to individuals and families, and the scientific opportunity, to ratchet up our efforts here to really move in the direction of identifying potential prevention methods and treatments.
And, today, we are announcing two large clinical trials aimed at those goals that we’re quite excited about.
MARGARET WARNER: And I want to get back to those trials.
First, let me ask you, Eric Hall, working with families, caregivers, what’s new here to you? How is this going to make a difference. . .
ERIC HALL, president and CEO, Alzheimer’s Foundation of America: Well, I think the fact that we have a plan is, in and of itself, really important for families coast to coast.
They now understand that people are recognizing the plight that they are living day in and day out. The other part of the plan — we focus a lot on research, but there’s also a very strong clinical care component to this plan. And there’s also long-term support services as part of this plan, the education piece along the Web site, other activities that we will be engaged in.
All of that is really critical, because in the absence of a cure or prevention, care really does become the priority.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Dr. Collins, back to you.
Let’s — tell us about these two studies, first the one testing this insulin nasal inhalant. Now, why that? What is the link? What do researchers see between insulin and Alzheimer’s?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Well, insulin is a growth factor. And, apparently, it has the capability of stabilizing neurons, brain cells. We have learned about that indirectly from basic science efforts.
And not long ago, in a smaller pilot study, the idea of actually administering insulin by a nasal spray, which gets into the brain, was tested in individuals who were early in the onset of what appeared to be Alzheimer’s disease. And there were indications of benefit.
It was a relatively small study. We’re excited about the results, but we need to test this now in a much larger group. And that’s what this new study that’s being announced to will do, spending $8 million to study 240 individuals to see what happens.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, the other one is actually aimed at prevention. And can you simply explain that? It’s to test a certain drug with a particular extended family in Colombia.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: So why are we going to Colombia in South America?
Well, because in that particular country, there is a very large extended family that has an early onset form of Alzheimer’s disease caused by a single glitch in the DNA. And those individuals, if they have inherited that, are very, very high likelihood of getting this disease in their 40s.
That means that they are already at very high risk and very willing to participate in research that might prevent the disease even before any symptoms have appeared. So about 300 individuals in that family will be given the chance to receive a new therapy, a monoclonal antibody that aims to clear out this protein called amyloid which deposits in the brain and see whether that can in fact reduce the likelihood of going on to full-blown disease.
And we’re going to follow this very carefully with a variety of measures, using brain imaging, measurements of proteins in the blood and the spinal fluid. We’re going to learn a lot about what kinds of indicators will help us in the future to say whether a treatment is working or not.
MARGARET WARNER: Eric Hall, how big of a hunger is there out there for this kind of — something effective to prevent it?
ERIC HALL: Well, I think Dr. Collins just said it.
We’re really in a position where we need to learn more. And so the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America really applauds this administration for making such incredible strides and not simply talking the talk, but also now putting resources behind it.
MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, in terms of prevention, as I understand it, this is the first test that will ever — trial that will ever be done on people who haven’t shown any symptoms yet.
ERIC HALL: Sure.
MARGARET WARNER: Isn’t that one of the greatest fear of families, that by the time they see the symptoms, it’s really too late so far?
ERIC HALL: Right.
And, so, yes, look, we are dealing with a disease that has terrified our country and terrifies the world. And so the possibility that perhaps we will learn something out of here that will form a preventative measure for Alzheimer’s disease would be miraculous, incredible, and truly probably the answer to everyone’s deepest fears.
And so in order to get there, though, we need to be engaged. And we need to step in and at least this administration has really taken those steps to do just that. And so I would say, you know, for families at home, they’re probably ecstatic that they’re being recognized, that their care for their loved one and that Alzheimer’s in their family is being recognized.
They’re ecstatic about all the support that is coming, but also, too, as caregivers, they have their own fear that they too may end up with this disease.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Dr. Collins, finally, back to you.
Looking at the big picture here, you said there’s a lot of new optimism. But is it fair to say that still there is currently no known effective either — a drug to either prevent or retard or cure this disease?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Despite a great deal of work over many decades, we do not at the present time have a convincing way to prevent the disease. We have some drugs that can actually improve the symptoms in individuals who have developed early signs of Alzheimer’s, but nothing that actually delays the progression in a significant way or treats or prevents the disease.
So we have a big charge ahead of us to achieve those outcomes, and especially to do so by 2025. But I’m optimistic that, with this Alzheimer’s plan, with the way in which these communities have come together, with the administration’s commitment to an additional 130 million dollars for research this year and next, that we are going to have a real opportunity here to make a difference.
And our country needs this. And all those people who are waiting for something to happen need this, and their families do. But I think, today, we have had more hope than we have had in a long time.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Dr. Francis Collins and Eric Hall, thank you both very much.
ERIC HALL: Thanks, Margaret.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And a reminder: A new PBS website launched today designed for Americans over 50. It’s called Next Avenue, and taps trusted sources for information about work, health, finances, leisure and caregiving. Explore NextAvenue.org by following a link on our home page.