The Obama Administration announced Tuesday that it is making $50 million available immediately to support stepped-up research on possible cures and new treatments for Alzheimer's disease. The funding comes on the heels of recent advances in our understanding of Alzheimer's, which afflicts millions of elderly people around the world with progressive memory loss and neurological dysfunction.
Dr. Ron Petersen, a neurologist and pioneer in Alzheimer's research, was among the first to diagnose the disease in perhaps its most famous victim: former U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
After a decade-long decline, Reagan died of Alzheimer's in 2004. He was 93.
Dr. Petersen says in the years since then, there have been great strides in our understanding of the illness, with some of the most rapid progress coming in just the past five years.
"We are able to recognize the earliest features of the disease and perhaps even diagnose the disease tendency when people are still normal. We now need to bring along therapeutics that are going to make a difference," said Petersen.
Petersen points to important recent discoveries about the biochemical causes of the disease, new techniques for diagnosing it sooner and better approaches to caring for Alzheimer's patients. But in order to make a real difference in the lives of those patients, Petersen says there is a dire need for more effective treatments that will have an impact on the underlying disease process.
"Currently, we have drugs that are available for treating the symptoms of the disease, but they do not have an impact on the overall outcome," added Petersen.
The new research money from the Obama administration is meant to change that.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of National Institutes of Health, says the research made possible by those additional funds will help speed the search for a cure -- a goal that appears closer than ever before:
"We are finally beginning to be able to understand what causes the brain cells in somebody with AD to get into trouble and how that spreads from one cell to next," said Collins. "That gives us the best chance that we have ever had to be able to identify therapeutic approaches that go right to the heart of the problem."
Other experts share that hope. Guy Eakin is vice president of the American Health Assistance Foundation, which funds research on Alzheimer's and other age-related degenerative diseases.
"There is a disease-modifying treatment in the near future and certainly the political impetus is to solve this disease within the next decade. That may seem slow, but the rate at which research progresses is, unfortunately, a slow process," said Eakin.
For a century after scientists first identified it, Alzheimer's Disease remained a stubborn medical mystery, with no clues to its cause, or its cure. However, now experts are confident that with continued research breakthroughs and a continued political commitment, the battle to conquer Alzheimer's could soon be won.