Thursday, July 21, 2011

Event Spotlight: CHI Co-Hosts Congressional Briefing on Alzheimer’s Disease

On July 14, CHI and the Healthcare Institute of New Jersey (HINJ) co-hosted a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C. focused on Alzheimer’s disease. Congresswoman Linda Sanchez of California delivered particularly poignant remarks. Sanchez’s father suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, giving her and her siblings, including fellow Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, personal experience in caring for a parent suffering from this mind-robbing disease. Despite this challenge, Linda Sanchez considers herself fortunate to have the support of her six siblings, asking, “I wonder what it would have been like to be an only child?”

CHI President and CEO David L. Gollaher, Ph.D., and Dean Paranicas, who serves as president and CEO of HINJ, delivered opening remarks, followed by presentations on cutting-edge research and scientific advances achieved by CHI and HINJ members. The event wrapped up with closing remarks from Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Linda Sanchez (D-CA). The program, held in the Capitol Visitor Center, attracted more than 60 congressional staffers, patient advocates and industry representatives.

The speakers on this day made clear that the experience of the Sanchez family is sadly common, and growing at a rate that will be both emotionally and economically devastating. As Gollaher noted, “The Alzheimer’s crisis is of great import because of its personal and economic effects” which will have “great implications for this country and the rest of the world as populations get older.” To illustrate the scope of the crisis, he noted that 5.4 million people are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and someone develops the disease every 69 seconds. Further, in 2010, family members and friends provided 17 billion hours of unpaid care to those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias — care valued at approximately $202 billion. The effect of the disease in California alone is particularly acute with more than 500,000 Californians suffering from the disease today and estimates that the number will double to 1 million by 2040.

Yet, participants and presenters also made clear that there is hope. California leads the nation in National Institutes of Health funding, making Alzheimer’s disease one of the largest concentrations in the California R&D pipeline, Gollaher noted. A panel of top researchers then offered their unique approaches to treating and potentially curing Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Stuart Lipton, director of the Del E. Webb Neuroscience, Aging and Stem Cell Research Center at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, described his ongoing work with NitroMemantine– a combination of an existing Alzheimer’s therapy called memantine and nitroglycerin. As both drugs are already approved for other indications, the compound’s potential speed to market is dramatically shorter than that of a new drug.

Joseph Hammang, Ph.D., the senior director of worldwide science policy for Pfizer, noted that improved diagnostic tools and personalized approaches to treating the disease that rely on a person’s unique genetic make-up are potentially critical advances in treating Alzheimer’s, which actually includes a number of distinct diseases. He said Pfizer has committed $100 million over five years on collaborations with public institutions, demonstrating its continued commitment to work with academic partners in the U.S. and around the world.

Kimberly Scearce-Levie, Ph.D., head of in vivo neurobiology for Genentech, detailed her team’s recent advances in methods to block a protein that composes the plaque thought to be responsible for cognitive impairment in AD sufferers. The Genentech team has developed a way to hijack the body’s own mechanism for passing iron from blood into the brain, essentially tricking the body into transporting a critical blocking agent through its own defenses..

Bob Nelson, Ph.D., research fellow at Lundbeck Research USA, continued the conversation by saying he believes that the story is likely to be more complicated. Lundbeck Research has begun to challenge conventional wisdom about the disease by asking slightly different questions. Are the identified plaque compounds associated with AD strictly bad substances? Might blocking them also have harmful effects? Might the abundance of plaque-causing proteins be caused by victim’s inability to remove or reabsorb the protein rather than due to a problem of overproduction?

Lastly, Wayne Poon, Ph.D., director of the UCI MIND Brain Bank and Tissue Repository, described his approach to solving a basic problem in Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. The disease, he said, is only diagnosable when a patient has died and his or her brain can be examined. Because of this, up to 15 percent to 20 percent of patients thought to have AD are later found to have been misdiagnosed.

In closing, Rep. Smith of New Jersey, chairman of the Alzheimer’s Disease Caucus for 11 years, thanked the panel for its efforts. The U.S. and the world are facing a figurative pandemic, he said, which is on the verge of a breakout with the arrival of a “demographic winter.”

“We have a crisis and funding is flat-lined,” he said. “We simply aren’t going to have the people to take care of these [AD sufferers].”

Rep. Sanchez concluded, “I wish I was here to celebrate a cure…Yet, with the talent and work of many, we will be able to celebrate that day in the future.”

CHI-Advancing California biomedical research and innovation

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