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.
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.
"That's the goal, to diagnose it before actual mental impairment comes into play," LaFerla said. "We need to find a biomarker for Alzheimer's disease that would be evidence well before the disease develops."
An obvious place to look is in cerebral spinal fluid. But the only way to extract the fluid is through a spinal tap, hardly a practical means of widespread testing. The hope is that once a predictive biomarker for Alzheimer's is detected, scientists could devise a relatively simple test to identify its presence in other bodily fluids such as saliva.
Meanwhile, LaFerla's groundbreaking tests have involved implanting neural stem cells into the brains of mice with advanced-stage Alzheimer's disease. He was shocked to find that the mice showed improved cognitive function, even though no new neurons were formed and their brain lesions remained.
LaFerla believes that the improvement resulted from new connections formed among the remaining neurons.
Now he's embarking on the next phase of research: injecting human stem cells into mice brains, a four-year project complicated by the need to mitigate interspecies rejection. The bill for rejection-fighting antibodies alone runs $30,000 a month, LaFerla said. "It's very expensive."
UCI MIND is also part of an ambitious effort to create a national Alzheimer's cell bank, a centralized repository where brain tissue, cell lines, DNA samples and a patient history database will be housed and readily available for researchers to share.
Despite these efforts, a huge obstacle remains: a dearth of funding. Today the annual funding for Alzheimer's research is just under $500 million. By contrast, cancer receives $6 billion a year, while HIV/AIDS receives $3 billion a year.
In addition, big pharmaceutical companies have been drastically cutting back their own efforts toward finding Alzheimer's drugs after a series of disappointments.
One positive development occurred in 2011 with the passage of federal legislation leading to the creation last year of the National Plan to Address Alzheimer's Disease. President Obama's fiscal 2013 budget proposal includes $100 million in additional funding for the plan, which has the stated goal of ending the Alzheimer's "crisis" by 2025.
That's a laudable goal, but the simple truth is that a whole lot more money will be needed to give us a shot at reaching it. The important research being done at centers like UCI MIND — its $10.5-million budget is funded primarily through national and state grants, and to a much lesser degree private donations — won't come cheap.
"We're going to need a lot more resources," LaFerla said.
Currently, 5% of the population older than 65 has Alzheimer's, and that figure is expected to double every five years. The year 2025 is just 12 years away, a heartbeat in the painstaking, deliberate world of medical research.
If scientists like LaFerla appear desperate to find a cure, it's because they don't have a moment to waste.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.