The United States neglects research in Alzheimer's disease because those who suffer from it can't protest and their relatives flee from the topic, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist said Thursday in Omaha.
Many children and spouses of Alzheimer's patients “want to run away from it,” said Dr. Stanley Prusiner, who won a Nobel Prize in 1997 for his discovery of prions. Prions (pronounced PREE-ons) are misshapen proteins that multiply and cause Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which strikes some former football players, boxers and soldiers who have suffered head injuries.
His Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of California, San Francisco, conducts research and seeks cures for various brain diseases.
“We don't have a single drug that halts or even slows one neurodegenerative disease,” Prusiner said in an interview.
He also spoke to University of Nebraska Medical Center faculty members and gave a lunch-hour speech to an overflow audience in a UNMC auditorium.
Prusiner, 70, said cancer research funding exceeds research money for Alzheimer's disease by close to 15 times. There are about 500,000 new cases of Alzheimer's annually, he said.
Dr. Howard Gendelman, a UNMC scientist, called this appalling during a faculty meeting with Prusiner. “Why, why, why are we neglecting an epidemic, which it is?” Gendelman asked.
Prusiner said cancer strikes many young and middle-aged people who provide compelling testimonials. Alzheimer's patients are older, they lose their jobs, people cease to listen to them, and “you begin to fade,” Prusiner said.
Prusiner said there has been an absence of powerful voices for Alzheimer's patients. He said family members of Alzheimer's patients are so worn out by the battle that they have little desire to fight for research.
He said Nancy Reagan unfortunately declined to get involved in the cause after President Ronald Reagan died. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in the 1990s.
Prusiner ridiculed those who sell mind exercises with the intention of thwarting Alzheimer's.
“I've never seen so much crap,” he said. “It's frightening how many charlatans are out there doing this.”
Prusiner, who was born in Des Moines, said there are clinical trials involving drugs that are designed to fight Alzheimer's. “We've had one failure after another,” he said. “But there's a lot of stuff going on.”
Nevertheless, he said, it's possible that with adequate financial support, scientists within five to seven years will come up with a drug or combination of medicines that will effectively fight Alzheimer's.
But it's science, he said, and it's hard to predict when a cure might come.
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