Alzheimer's breakthrough

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COLUMBIA - An MU neurologist is heralding new research that has identified a gene that makes people more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease and then managed to prevent it from damaging brain cells.

The team in California said the study could open the door to potential new drugs that could halt Alzheimer's. 

The gene is called apoE4, and people who have it are between 30 and 35 times more likely to develop Alzheimer's in their lives, said MU neurology associate professor Joel Shenker.

"We've known for a long time that there's this gene called apoE," Shenker said. "What's not been clearly understood is why does this gene make Alzheimer's more likely, and what this recent study did was it found out which protein the gene seems to code for, and it found a way to stop that protein from being active." 

Shenker has studied Alzheimer's since the 1980s. He said research picked up recently; half of all the papers ever published on the disease came out in the past 10 years. 

"We're really just getting started, we're just figuring out what's happening in Alzheimer's," he said. "So this development is a great breakthrough - it's a piece of that very big puzzle. We've got a long way to go." 

The Alzheimer's Association said 110,000 Missourians aged 65 or older have the disease. The group projects that the number will grow to 130,000 by 2025. 

Shenker said, if the new research pans out and is useful, doctors will be able to look at the link between Alzheimer's and the apoE gene similarly to how they look at heart disease and cholesterol.

"If cholesterol is elevated, that doesn't prove that you'll have a heart attack, but now we guide the patient and tell them what to do with their diet, exercise or to take a certain medicine," Shenker said.

He said the same sort of precautions can be taken based on a person's genetic apoE status.

"Maybe a medicine can be developed so that gene can be rendered impotent. That I can see happening, and that could be happening perhaps in a few years," he said. 

Shenker's main area of study involving Alzheimer's is the clinical care of patient: helping families understand what's happening with the disease and the problems they will encounter. 

He said not enough resources are being allocated to helping people who already have dementia.

"Typically, we tend to ignore the incredible need people with dementia have," Shenker said. "There aren't enough nursing homes, not enough professional caregivers. We as a culture need to help each other out better when we have dementia." 

The Alzheimer's Association said there were 316,000 caregivers in Missouri last year. In 2017, there was 360,000,000 hours of unpaid care for Alzheimer's patients, much of it shouldered by spouses, children and other relatives.