Sunday, April 3, 2011

Discovery doubles genetic clues to Alzheimer's

Two new reports in Nature Genetics detail the discovery of five new pathways for detecting Alzheimer's disease, the memory-stealing brain illness that is especially prevalent among the elderly.

Previous research had identified five genes linked to Alzheimer's disease, or AD. The combined efforts of an international consortium of researchers has raised those known genetic markers to 10.

"We've really doubled the number of clues we have about late-onset AD. We have a lot left to do to complete the story of AD genetics, but this is a big step," said Professor Gerard D. Schellenberg of the University of Pennsylvania, lead researcher for one of the studies.

"Almost as important as the genes discovered is the fact that a large number of investigators are working together to solve the genetics of AD," Schellenberg said. "We just started an international consortium, IGAP (International Genomics of Alzheimer's Project), so all the groups that produced both papers are now collaborating."  IGAP includes scientists from four university research groups and creates a shared database that includes genetic information for more than 40,000 patients.

"Of course, I am a bit biased, but I think this is a big deal," Schelleberg said.

While the new genetic findings are far from being a cure for Alzheimer's, Dr. Bill Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer's Association praised the findings of both studies, noting their strong methods.

"In the genetics world we've had a history of small samples," Thies said. "The fact that we've confirmed some genes in a large group means that it's real, not a statistical anomaly." The IGAP will continue to share genetic findings, he said, with the hopes  their research findings will offer keys to unlocking information about all of the routes that Alzheimer's takes in the body. "The more pathways that we can explore will allow us to make progress for preventing and treating AD eventually."

Schellenberg said research is at a "critical point" in Alzheimer's treatment.

"Much attention has been focused on therapies that target A-beta production," better known as brain deposits that cause plaques and tangles, gumming up the brain's machinery, he said. But the new genetic findings look at new pathways that merit further study, including one that confirms a previous theory that focuses on the metabolism of cholesterol. Another important theme in the new research is that  "innate immunity" is important in relation to disease susceptibility. That's the theory that  Alzheimer's could be part of the body attacking itself because it perceives a threat to its protective immune system.

"This is a really important idea that needs to be followed up," he said.

5.2 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association, which estimates that by 2050, as many as 16 million Americans will have the disease.

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