Studies bloom on Alzheimer's as Boomers age

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The long race to develop a cure, or even a viable treatment, for Alzheimer’s disease is quickly turning into a sprint as the Baby Boomer generation heads toward old age and the country faces what could be a health care disaster if the disease is allowed to run rampant.

Scientists nationwide are edging in on possible causes of Alzheimer’s, a devastating neurological disease that attacks short-term memory first and destroys brain cells until sufferers can no longer recognize loved ones or take care of themselves, and eventually die from complications such as pneumonia.

But even as an avalanche of research and exciting new areas for investigation developed in the past five years, there have been clinical failures and frustrating setbacks. No one yet knows what, exactly, causes Alzheimer’s, and there are only four drugs on the market now to treat it _ none of them very effectively.

Still, there are positive signs. At least two major pharmaceutical companies are in the final stages of clinical studies for drugs that focus on the protein that most scientists think is the likely cause for the disease. A San Francisco lab is also redesigning a vaccine that failed in a clinical trial four years ago, but some scientists still believe it could stop Alzheimer’s.

“The major question still remains: What causes Alzheimer’s disease? To know that will take us a very long time, but you can treat a disease without knowing exactly what causes it,” said Tony Wyss-Coray, an associate professor of neurology at Stanford University School of Medicine.

“With the population aging, Alzheimer’s is going to ruin the health care system. But I think there is really hope that something will work in the next two to five years. It will not completely prevent the disease or reverse it, but it will have an effect on the disease process.”

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