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Researchers Report Progress in Combating Alzheimer

While there is still a long way to go before Alzheimer's disease is cured, researchers say they have made major strides in treating the degenerative illness. Some of these developments raise hope for a cure, while others improve the quality of life of Alzheimer patients.

In what is being hailed as a major development, researchers attending an American Academy of Neurology conference meeting recently reported news of the first drug ever to slow the progression of Alzheimer's.

Researchers at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota unveiled data showing that a drug, known commercially as Aricept, delays by about a year the symptoms of Alzheimer's in people who are at risk. Aricept is mostly used to improve memory in those who already have the disease.

The study, involving more than 750 older people with mild cognitive impairment, compared Aricept to vitamin E. Vitamin E was shown to have no benefit.

Neurologist Thomas Wisiewski, a neurologist at New York University School of Medicine said, "so, if a drug is working in early Alzheimer's disease, then you might expect that it would work in these pre-symptomatic stages of Alzheimer's disease pathology. However, in this clinical trial, this is the first time that this has been shown to be true."

Alzheimer's disease is a neuro-degenerative disorder primarily of the elderly. It is caused by the accumulation in the brain of the protein beta-amyloid, whose job normally is to get rid of waste products. Instead, excess beta-amyloid leads to plaques and tangles that rob sufferers of their memory and, eventually, ability to function.

Researchers may have found a way to siphon off beta-amyloid. Studies have shown that immune system antibodies, that help destroy germs and abnormal cells, can respond the same way to the Alzheimer's protein.

At the neurology conference, researchers from Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York described infusing eight Alzheimer's participants with antibodies that recognized and killed beta-amyloid proteins.

After six months of treatment, the scientists tested learning and memory functions, and six of the participants showed improvement. A seventh patient did not get worse.

Study lead author Marc Weksler cautions it is too soon to say whether the therapy is effective and safe. "It is reassuring and encouraging that there are no signs of toxicity in these limited number of patients, suggesting that this type of approach is not only effective and safe, but obviously further studies need to be done in larger numbers of patients before we can be comfortable approach and know that it can really be recommended in larger numbers of patients," he said.

Dr. Weksler said it's an exciting time in the field of Alzheimer's research. "There is lots of different therapies which are being developed, and almost certainly some of them will be effective and go into wider clinical practice, probably on a time frame of five to ten years from now," he said.

The study on Aricept was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.