Good scientists are careful not to overplay the significance of their own research, let alone the research of others. So when leading lights in the field speak of possible “turning points” and “history”, it is worth sitting up and paying attention.
We’ve heard about Alzheimer’s breakthroughs before. Some newspapers, looking for an easy front page that’s bound to fly off the shelves, are liable to seize on any bit of progress, no matter how minor, as the next big thing. With 800,000 people living with dementia in the UK, that’s not just disingenuous, it’s downright cynical – selling hope from the news stand when the fact is we have a long and arduous road to walk before we can talk about beating Alzheimer’s.
But this research is certainly a step upon that road. Its significance lies firstly in the novelty of its strategy for curing neurodegenerative disorders, which stops brain cell death in its tracks. Secondly, it has been done with a drug-like compound that has good potential to be turned into a medicine. The leading pharmaceutical GlaxoSmithKline was closely involved with the study. Finally, its mechanism could even work against other debilitating brain diseases, like Parkinson’s.
Still, the scientists from the Medical Research Council are under no illusions that a pill for Alzheimer’s will definitely be achievable in a year, or a decade, or even several decades. Nothing is certain yet. The study was in mice, and though many experts see good potential for a transfer to humans, many a new treatment has fallen by the wayside making the leap between mouse and man.
There were also side effects, including weight loss and diabetes, which would be very serious in the elderly population most likely to benefit from any drug derived from the compound used.
Nevertheless, today is a day for congratulating scientists like Professor Giovanna Mallucci and her team. There is a long road to walk, but we may just have turned a corner.