POSTED 7 SEP 2000
stem of a discovery
And while opponents of abortion say human embryo research is tantamount to murder, stem cells could relieve a lot of human suffering. If, for example, they could be taught to transform themselves into brain cells, they might be used to treat brain-killing diseases like Parkinson's, a movement disorder, and Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia among the elderly.
Literally, "dementia" means to "remove or reduce the mind," and that's what Alzheimer's does -- causing confusion, memory loss, disorientation and eventually destroying a patient's very identity. Along the way, the symptoms may include aggressiveness, moodiness, confusion and loss of speech.
Ever since 1907, when German physician Alois Alzheimer described a peculiar and fatal senile syndrome, his name has been linked with a cruel death that starts with simple forgetfulness and progresses to mental decline and the death of the mind. With an estimated 4 million people suffering from Alzheimer's in the United States, progress can never come too soon.
Until quite recently, doctors could do nothing as Alzheimer's destroyed minds and wreaked havoc among overwhelmed families.
What is Alzheimer's disease? How do the current treatments work? What's on the horizon? Will we ever be able to diagnosis Alzheimer's early enough to halt it in its tracks?
Some scientists blame "neurofibrillary tangles," which contain a protein called tau. Normally, tau encourages the formation of microtubules, which transport chemicals inside cells. But since the tangles are another hallmark of Alzheimer's, tau is also a suspect in causing the disease.
Ultimately, it may develop that beta amyloid and tau share the blame.
Until recently, a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease was equivalent to a death sentence. Now, better knowledge of what goes awry in the brain has offered some hope. Three medicines can reduce the symptoms in some patients. Although the drugs are not perfect -- they improve symptoms but do not interfere with the disease itself -- for many patients they do slow the decline. "The reaction of families is very positive, they are looking for anything they can get to give them hope," says George Grossberg, professor of psychiatry at St. Louis University. "Our goal is always to have them on the best possible medicine until something better comes along."
Much more impressive would be the discovery of a drug or a vaccine that halted the disease itself -- just in time to help the aging population of baby-boomers.
First things first. What's on the market now?
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