School of Medicine

Alzheimer’s research reset

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After some costly and disappointing drug trial failures, the field welcomes a funding surge, tools for tracking disease, and interdisciplinary collaborations to tackle one of science’s most stubborn puzzles.

In the last five years, as several large clinical trials testing drugs for Alzheimer’s disease failed, the field came to a stark conclusion: These approaches did nothing to slow down—let alone reverse—the course of the disease once patients already exhibited symptoms of early dementia.

“We think now that the disease develops over 25 years or so,” says Eric McDade, cognitive neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, and a coinvestigator on an 11-year observational study of 500 patients who have inherited mutations that put them at risk for early-onset forms of Alzheimer’s disease.

The failed trials, along with the dawning realization that the disease unfolds over decades, have put the entire field on a reset—to develop and test interventions that can be used much earlier, to discover new targets beyond misfolded amyloid and tau proteins, and to fund large, interdisciplinary, big data collaborations.

Advances in understanding the role of neuroinflammation, new biomarkers and research tools, and an influx of research funding mean it’s a good time to make a career move into the Alzheimer’s field. As history has shown, there won’t be any easy answers, and advances will come only through large collaborations that require a hefty dose of teamwork and heaping amounts of perseverance.

“Most people who have thought about the role of amyloid in Alzheimer’s know that we’ll also need to identify different ways of intervening,” says McDade, also associate director of the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer Network Trials Unit (DIAN-TU), a worldwide collaboration that connects researchers studying the unique population of people at high risk for early-onset disease. “There’s never been a better time for moving into Alzheimer’s research.”

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