By Amato, Ivan
Science News , Vol. 130
Alzheimer's disease: Scientists report research advances
Medical scientists cannot tell you the cause of nor administer a cure for Alzheimer's disease, which slowly erodes the minds of 5 to 10 percent of people over 65. But there was excitement and optimism at an Alzheimer's disease research forum held last week in Washington, D.C., at the 16th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. In an unscheduled, last-minute presentation, Dmitry Goldgaber of the National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke (NINCDS) reported the isolation, localization and characterization of a protein and gene possibly associated with the illness. Also notable was the disclosure by two scientists from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx of their discovery of what may be the first accurate diagnostic indicator of Alzheimer's.
In time, these and other research findings reported at the forum could lead to an understanding of the causes of the disease, which affects an estimated 2.5 million elderly people in the United States at an inestimable cost in human suffering and which levies an economic burden soaring into the billions of dollars.
Goldgaber reported results of ongoing experiments that he is conducting in collaboration with Carleton D. Gajdusek, also of NINCDS, and Michael Lerman, Wesley McBride and Umberto Saffiotti, all of the National Cancer Institute. The scientists have identified and localized a gene on chromosome 21 as coding for part of a protein that may be a precursor of amyloid, a small protein that is unusually abundant in the brains of Alzheimer patients. While some scientists have long suspected that the disease is genetically based (SN:7/2/83, p.5), Goldgaber's research marks the first time a gene has been experimentally associated with the disease.
The researchers have not yet published their results, nor could they have submitted them -- the report did not yet exist -- before the deadline for this year's Society for Neuroscience meeting. But the importance of their laboratory findings compelled them to circumvent the more orthodox and slower avenues. About a week before the meeting, Goldgaber called symposium chairman John H. Morrison of Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, Calif., and informed him of his group's results. Morrison agreed that the presentation should be included at the meeting.
Goldgaber emphasized in the news conference that neither amyloid's action in cells nor its abudance in Alzheimer brains is understood. But now that they know the cellular address of the gene coding for amyloid, scientists will be able to compare these genes from Alzheimer patients with those from healthy people, Morrison told SCIENCE NEWS. Any differences in the genes and the gene products would strongly suggest that the gene is at least partly responsible for the devastating disease. Goldgaber says it is too early to say that the gene definitely plays a role in Alzheimer's.
Other research reported in two presentations of the symposium could lead to early diagnosis of the illness, an ability that would be essential for any cure that may be developed in the future. Presently, the only way to make a positive diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease (except in rare cases when brain biopsies are done) is to examine brain cells obtained after the death of the patient. Pathologists look for specific cellular signs that Alzheimer's disease, and not some other disease, was the cause of the patient's symptoms. Such signs include tangles of tiny filaments inside neurons, chaotic assemblages of cellular components and indications that abnormal brain-cell death had occurred before the patients themselves had died. …