On November 3, 1906, at the 37th Meeting of South-West German Psychiatrists in Tübingen, Germany, clinical psychiatrist and neuroanatomist, Alois Alzheimer, reported “A peculiar severe disease process of the cerebral cortex.” Alzheimer talked about a 51-year-old woman, named Auguste Deter, whom he treated for paranoia, memory disturbance and confusion until her death five years after being admitted to the Institution for the Mentally Ill and for Epileptics in Frankfurt. After performing a post-mortem, he noted distinctive plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain.
Though not a household name, Auguste Deter is considered the first Alzheimer’s patient. Her post-mortem revealed what are now established as the pathological hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease: tau tangles and amyloid plaque.
Today, according to the World Health Organization, more than 55 million people live with dementia worldwide. Alzheimer’s contributes to 60-70% of cases.1
For more than a century, scientists across academia and industry have been trying to better understand the role the two proteins (tau and amyloid) play in the disease. This foundational knowledge is key to developing potential treatments. But, like many diseases, this work is an arduous and time-intensive journey, one that has required a significant investment in research and development.
If science is the pursuit of answers, then we must ask the right questions. For Alzheimer’s researchers, the question then becomes: How do we make the biological changes to the brain in order to reduce amyloid and tau? This translates into finding the right molecule for the disease and one that will breach the blood-brain barrier which protects the brain from toxic substances in the blood but can also keep potential treatments from reaching the brain. It means ensuring that patients participating in clinical trials have Alzheimer’s disease and not a different form of dementia. It also means understanding the stage of the disease in individual patients, as well as degree of pathology.
The use of imaging tools has been instrumental in answering these questions, allowing scientists and researchers to look inside the brain of patients to not only confirm the presence of amyloid and tau but also provide a view of the efficacy of potential treatments. Projects like the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, a public-private partnership to develop a longitudinal study of normal cognitive aging, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and early Alzheimer’s disease as a public domain research resource2 have provided tremendous insights into disease progression.
Our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease has advanced since Alois Alzheimer’s discovery more than 100 years ago. It has required commitment by academia, industry and government, and a drive and determination by numerous scientists and researchers around the world. But there’s more that needs to be done.
“Innovation is about connecting dots,” says Alfred Sandrock, Executive Vice President, Research & Development at Biogen. “No one person or organization alone can advance science. It’s about seeing connections among things that are going on around us, experiments in academic labs as well as clinical trials. It’s also about seeing what’s possible and then striving toward it.”
For Biogen it’s about the unrelenting commitment to be part of solving a century-old problem. This commitment is demonstrated not only by the deep expertise of those who work here but also by their passion to advance scientific research and understanding for patients.
Visit our website to learn more about our commitment to solving the Alzheimer’s puzzle.