Despite billions of dollars spent on clinical trials through the decades, Alzheimer's disease remains one of the most devastating and baffling diseases in the world, affecting more than 5 million Americans alone.
But Dallas scientists say they've made a major breakthrough in the fight.
They have discovered a "Big Bang" of Alzheimer's disease — the point at which a healthy protein becomes toxic, but has not yet formed deadly tangles in the brain.
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According to a study from UT Southwestern's O'Donnell Brain Institute, scientists found the shape-shifting nature of a tau molecule just before it begins sticking to itself to form larger aggregates.
The tau protein is believed to be the key driver of Alzheimer's disease.
The revelation offers a new strategy to detect the devastating disease before it takes hold and has spawned an effort to develop treatments that stabilize tau proteins before they shift shape.
Doctors involved in the research call it the biggest finding in Alzheimer's research to date.
"New treatments have failed to stop the progression of Alzheimer's. What we are hoping to do is design a treatment that would actually stop the disease before it even manifests in a person," said Dr. Marc Diamond, director for UT Southwestern's Center for Alzheimer's and Neurodegenerative Diseases.
"In the case of other diseases that are due to a shape-shift protein, it's been possible to design a drug that is approved that helps prevent that shape shift from occurring. If it's been done in other diseases, it could possibly be done in Alzheimer's," Diamond said.
Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Alzheimer's has no current cure.
Any drug resulting from the discovery of the disease origin would still be years away, Diamond said.
Taylor Parker, of Arlington, was diagnosed two years ago and is now supported by her husband Stan.
"After a while, I realized that I was slowly losing Taylor. Most days, I was okay. Some days, I was not okay. Some days, I cried," Stan Parker said.
Despite the fact that any possible drug likely won't help Taylor in time, they say they're happy that she's still able to enjoy life with as much joy as possible. Diamond's team's next steps are to develop a simple clinical test that examines a patient's blood or spinal fluid to detect the first biological signs of dementia.