New treatments for Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's disease takes a terrible toll on patients and families, and while there are four drugs on the market to help relieve symptoms there is no known treatment to prevent or halt the disease.

Carolyn Johnson shows us how researchers are studying a promising new approach.

Alheimer's disease is a thief stealing thoughts and memories - friends, families, dignity and ultimately human life. Letta McMillen is still in the early stages of Alzheimer's, but the disease is progressing relentlessly.

"I don't remember time; I don't remember what I'm supposed to do unless if have it written down, stuff like that," Leeta said.

"Mom has a hard time remembering where she is, what day it is, what you're supposed to be doing that day, where home is and even trouble where the food's coming right," said Sara McMillen, Leeta's daughter.

A few months ago Leeta had to move into assisted living. Now she is part of a UCSF clinical trial on a new Alzheimer's treatment.

"I think the really exciting thing about this treatment is that it really targets the toxin, the thing that damages your brain in alzheimer's disease," said Adam Boxer, MD, PHD
UCSF Neurologist.

Often Azlheimer's patients' brains can show a rapid buildup of toxic substances called amyloid proteins, which damage the brain and interfere with neurological connections.

"The one way to measure the shrinkage is to measure the brain scan overtime," Boxer said.

A brain scan will show how ultimately, the patient's brain begins to shrink and the spaces between the brain folds increase. UCSF researchers are hoping a genetically-engineered antibody given as an IV infusion will trigger the immune sytem to attack and clear these toxic amyloid proteins.

"There's a type of immune cell in the brain - it's sort of like of a PacMan for infectious agents, and so when we mark something with an antibody it may help it to clear this," Boxer said.

Study patients like Leeta get an infusion every three months of either the real drug or a placebo. Taking part in this trial is important to Leeta since she lost both her brother and sister to Alzheimer's disease.

"It would be great to have a cure, to be able to prevent this disease, but we know that this is just a trial and we just want do our part to help find some answers for the disease," Leeta said.

The answers are still months or years away, but progressive brain scans like these taken a year apart may be able to show if brain shrinkage is slowing in study patients, and Boxer is hopeful about this research.

"We think that this new type of therapy we're testing really has great potential to act, to protect the brain from the damage that occurs, to prolong people's lives or at least prolong people's ability to remember and to function independently - that's the real hope."

Hope that Leeta shares.

According to a new report from the Alzheimer's Association more than 5 million Americans are living with the disease. That's a 10 percent increase since 2002.