ALZHEIMER’S: Hope Soars on News of Breakthrough
Scientists at California-based Amgen, Inc. have identified an elusive protein, known for more than a decade as "beta-secretase," one of two proteases essential in the development of Alzheimers, the New York Times reports. "The long, brutal process that leads to Alzheimer's disease starts when a single enzyme snips a protein that protrudes from brain cells," the Times explains. A second enzyme, gamma-secretase, then slices that protein into fragments that float from the cell and cluster to form toxic "amyloid plaque" that many believe goes on to suffocate the brain's nerve cells. Some of the most skeptical scientists are hailing the discovery as a "tour de force." University of Chicago chair of neurobiology, pharmacology and physiology Dr. Sangram Sisodia dismissed advance reports as "junk. It has been junk after junk for 12 years." But when he read the paper by Dr. Martin Citron and colleagues, which appears in today's edition of the journal Science , Sisodia said, "I was overwhelmed" (Kolata, 10/22). Harvard Medical School professor of neurology Dr. Rudolph Tanzi calls Amgen's discovery "the most direct target (for developing drugs) we have ever had in Alzheimer's disease research ... It is a major, major advance over what we had before." The Wall Street Journal reports that other firms, including Smithkline Beecham PLC and Elan Corp. PLC, are very close to replicating the findings (Langreth, 10/22). The New York Times reports that scientists are saying that with the finding, "the field of Alzheimer's research is poised at the same place as AIDS research several years ago, when researchers discovered that ... HIV needed a protease -- an enzyme that cuts protein -- to replicate." That discovery was used to formulate protease inhibitors, now "a vital part of AIDS therapy" (10/22). The Los Angeles Times reports that experts are cautioning that "the leap from discovery to effective treatment could take years." Still, the paper notes, "the finding is a striking example of the power of the biotechnology industry to harness the genetic engineering revolution in the search for root causes of disease" (Jacobs, 10/22).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.