Open the Door to Curing Alzheimer's

By Robert Essner
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

America is getting serious about preparing for the possibility of an outbreak of avian flu. Would that it could muster the same sense of urgency for a disease that is already here and is certain to become epidemic. The disease is Alzheimer's. It will claim one in 10 baby boomers, create a personal and fiscal nightmare for their families, and drain -- if not bankrupt -- state and federal health-care budgets. Medicare now pays one-third of all its health-care funds for some 4.5 million Alzheimer's patients. Are we ready for three times that number?

Alzheimer's doesn't have to be an inevitable part of aging. It is a disease for which research can find a cure, or at least a more effective treatment. In that way, it could be like HIV-AIDS -- a disease that, for most sufferers, went from a lethal diagnosis to a treatable chronic condition within six years of its discovery. One breakthrough AIDS drug rapidly led to another, because we mobilized pandemic-strength muscle against it. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration created review and approval processes that helped new therapies for AIDS reach people who needed them years ahead of what would have otherwise been possible.

The FDA now needs to give the same priority status to drugs for Alzheimer's as it has for AIDS and cancer treatments. And, the federal government needs to designate Alzheimer's as a No. 1 research priority.

If we don't do these things, the projections are staggering. Within the next five years, nearly a half-million new Alzheimer's cases will be diagnosed annually, as 78 million baby boomers reach age 65. Given those numbers, most of us will either become an Alzheimer's patient, care for one in our home or know a patient in our extended family. By robbing victims of memory, Alzheimer's strips away individuality, dignity and independence.

Alzheimer's is expensive. It requires $19,000 a year in out-of-pocket costs for each caregiver family. Last year Medicare spent $91 billion for Alzheimer's. That figure will nearly double in just four years -- and keep soaring as 14 million cases are diagnosed in boomers' lifetimes.

Within the pharmaceutical industry, there are 28 Alzheimer's compounds in development. But progress on all fronts is unconscionably slow considering the looming shadow of this epidemic. And, given the complexity of the disease, no single research organization has the resources to research all its facets as quickly as we must.

At Wyeth alone, we've committed hundreds of millions of dollars to this research. We are moving in a promising direction by testing eight innovative approaches. Right now no one can say that any one of them will work. But we believe that, through taking multiple "shots on goal" in our research labs, a treatment can be found.

In October 2001 Wyeth started its Alzheimer's research program with a vaccine approach designed to stimulate the body to stop the buildup of beta-amyloid plaque in the brain -- thought to be a critical part of the disease process. While that initial effort proved unsuccessful, it did not deter us from moving ahead with another vaccine approach. This new vaccine program is in the clinic. Furthest along in development at Wyeth is a pill -- a potent serotonin receptor antagonist that may enhance cognition in moderate cases and significantly enhance the quality of life. Another promising approach is an antibody directed against beta-amyloid. By removing these plaques, we hope to stop the disease from progressing.

But it is imperative for industry, scientists and regulators to work together to help us reach our goal even faster. We need a sense of urgency, a commitment to collaboration that will lead to a concerted, focused effort to prevent this impending epidemic.

A TV journalist who cares for a husband diagnosed with the disease wrote in a recent issue of the scientific journal Alzheimer's & Dementia: "Right now the majority of Alzheimer's victims and their caregivers are our parents. Their plight is our future. . . . We are desperately in need of access to new therapies instead of being left with only agonizing decisions."

For every month we hesitate, we will find ourselves spending down the nation's health-care budget to care for the demise of millions of people. We should be preparing to cure them. We could make my generation the last to dread Alzheimer's. It is time to accelerate the pace of our efforts and take the battle to a level on par with our hope.

The writer is chairman, president and chief executive of Wyeth Corp.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company