Using Biotechnology to Slow Down Alzheimer's Symptoms
Biotechnology is perhaps one of the most productive industries to emerge from the technological revolution that the world has seen in the past few decades. Biotechnology, or biotech as many call it, uses the principles of biology to create technological products to be used for medical purpose. These can include products such as vaccines, disease detection methods, and synthetic biology tools. Aside from directly medical niches, biotech helps shape the world by tackling things such as food supply, air quality issues, and new fuel types.
One of the niches within medical biotech is pharmaceutical biotechnology. Advances in biotechnology have helped scientists develop many new drugs in the new millennium. Biotechnology helps create specialized drugs for diseases that in the past were undiscovered, and it opens the door for innovations to help patients with diseases that in the past were thought to be incurable.
Pharmaceuticals for Alzheimer’s
One such disease that is in desperate need for innovative treatments is Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s currently affects 5 million Americans, with that number potentially growing as high as 16 million people by 2050. The disease is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. But, there is still no known cure for Alzheimer’s.
Although there is no cure, there are some medications available to help treat some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, such as memory loss or behavioral change. One of the medication types, cholinesterase inhibitors, function by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine, a chemical in the brain crucial for memory and learning. Acetylcholine also promotes communication between nerve cells in the brain, and cholinesterase inhibitors help facilitate that communication despite degradation of acetylcholine. By promoting this function with medication, it can help slow or delay the worsening of memory-related symptoms that people with Alzheimer’s often experience.
Another Alzheimer’s medication, Memantine, works with glutamate, a chemical involved with neurological functions such as memory and information processing. This medication is typically used for people with later stage Alzheimer’s who are experiencing more severe symptoms. It is sometimes paired with a cholinesterase inhibitor, donepezil.
Though pharmaceuticals such as these are very effective for some people with Alzheimer’s, the lack of more options or approaches to treat the condition is worrisome, especially considering the prevalence of the disease. There’s hope that pharmaceutical biotechnology can help open new doors for novel treatment options for Alzheimer’s.
Believe it or not, no new medications for Alzheimer’s have been approved since 2003. Many, however, are researched, and make it to clinical trials. The results of those trials have not been encouraging. According to a Scientific American report, a whopping 99.6% of Alzheimer’s drugs fail in clinical trials, which is also one of the highest failure rates for trials for any disease area. One of the reasons for this extremely high rate of failure is that, despite its prevalence, relatively little is understood about the biological mechanisms behind Alzheimer’s. Researchers and physicians understand what happens to the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s, but not why it happens. The brain is a difficult organ to access, which makes it exceedingly hard to perform tests and deliver treatments, which ultimately make it more difficult to understand. “Less is known about the biology of the disease than, say, cancer,” explains Simon Lovestone, neuroscience professor at the University of Oxford in the U.K.