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Making Strides Against Alzheimer's Disease

A collaborative effort between the National Institutes of Health, the FDA, Big Pharma, universities and non-profits is making huge strides in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease, and laying a path for those researching Parkinson’s to follow.

The New York Times reports that the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative has “more than 100 studies under way to test drugs that might slow or stop” Alzhemier’s.  As a result of a similar collective funded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, 600 Parkinson’s patients will soon enroll as test subjects in the hopes of finding a cure.

Which means that in my lifetime, children may not have a grandmother crippled by Parkinson’s disease, as mine was.  Grandparents may be able to stave off the effects of Alzhemier’s – if not halt the disease completely – and enjoy their grandchildren until the end of their days.

This is all possible because, much like the FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security facilitate the exchange of information via the centralized Terrorist Threat Integration Center, individual components of the scientific community vowed to compile and share all of their research – not just amongst each other – but with “anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.”

The implications of this are astounding.  You may have heard about the race to decode the human genome.  Public labs were working diligently to decode all 3 billion letters of the human genome, a process the government estimated would take 15 years, according to Cracking the Code of Life, a brilliant Nova special.  (If you haven’t seen it, you should definitely watch it.  Click the link to view the program online.)  Then in 1998, Craig Venter, founder of the private, for-profit Celera Genomics, declared he would complete the project in just 2 years.  Celera’s business model was a slap-in-the-face to traditional scientific methods, wherein results are shared and then built-upon.  The ADNI takes that tradition one step further for the benefit of the public; they agreed no one working on the project would own the data and “no one could submit patent applications.”

Dr. John Q. Trojanowski of the University of Pennsylvania says he knew a cure for Alzheimer’s would remain elusive unless everyone involved “parked (their) egos and intellectual-property noses outside the door and agreed that all of (the) data would be public immediately.”  

Chief of the Dementias of Aging Branch at the National Institute on Aging, Dr. Neil S. Buckholtz, identifies the National Institutes of Health as the glue between all of the various organizations involved.  He says the NIH were suited to “serve as an honest broker between the pharmaceutical industry and academia.”  (Full disclosure: Dr. Buckholtz is my friend Hillary’s Dad!  So proud.)

In the end, the pharmaceutical industry will profit off any drugs created to arrest Alzheimer’s, and to those who negatively judge scientists for working with drug companies (usually me), Dr. Jason Karlawish of the University of Pennsylvania says, “Get over it.”  He says without Big Pharma’s financial help, a cure for the disease is not possible.  “The development of reliable and valid measures of Alzheimer’s disease requires such large science with such limited returns on the investment that it was in no one company’s interest to pursue it.”  Another sad truth, but one that’s clearly best to move past.

It’s encouraging to know that the ground-breaking science the ADNI is enacting is a result of the simple task of sharing.  When you encourage your toddler to let a friend play with his toys, just think, you’re building a foundation for the next great cure.

Photo: premus via Flickr

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