Alzheimer’s Expert Sees Promise in Research Aimed at Underlying Pathologies

People pose for photo

Brendan Kelley, MD, left, and William Thies, PhD, prior to Dr. Thies’s guest lecture. Photo by Dan Davenport / UC Academic Health Center Communications Services.

What does Alzheimer’s disease have in common with cardiovascular disease? More than you might think, says William Thies, PhD, Chief Medical and Scientific Officer of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Dr. Thies made the comparison while discussing the future of Alzheimer’s research and drug development during a special “joint grand rounds” lecture hosted by the University of Cincinnati Department of Neurology and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience.

Brendan Kelley, MD, Director of the Memory Disorders Center at the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute, introduced Thies and noted that he hoped to make such joint grand rounds a regular occurrence.

Dr. Thies said that while early Alzheimer’s drug trials focused — without long-term success — on treating symptoms, which include cognitive impairment and dementia, current research is focused on finding biomarkers and addressing the underlying pathology of Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Thies invited attendees to look at the example of heart disease.

“The first clinical description of myocardial infarction (heart attack) was that it was a very rare phenomenon. You virtually never saw it, and when you saw it you only saw it in really older people—over 50. That was in the 1700s, when there weren’t many people over 50.

“So between the 1700s and the 1900s, when heart disease became an epidemic, we got lots of people over 50 and now all of a sudden there were lots of myocardial infarctions.

“But as we began to understand the underlying pathology—high blood pressure, high serum lipids—and began to develop medications that really treated those underlying pathologies, we got to a point where we could avoid the catastrophic endpoint of the disease.”

Dr. Thies said U.S. deaths from cardiovascular disease peaked in the mid-1950s, with the subsequent decrease linked to the advent of drugs that lowered blood pressure and serum lipids, plus enhanced knowledge of the benefits of adjustments in diet and physical activity.

“Only a small portion of that (decrease) comes from actual treatment of myocardial infarction,” he said. “Most of this comes from the prevention of those catastrophic endpoints.

“So I would suggest to you that what we will see in the near future is the development of medications that will interfere with the basic pathology of Alzheimer’s disease and in so doing prevent the eventual catastrophic outcome of dementia.”

While in Cincinnati, Dr. Thies also spoke at an Alzheimer’s research update sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati.

About 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It is the sixth-leading cause of death in the nation and has no known way of being prevented, cured or even slowed.

–Keith Herrell

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