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Hope for People with Alzheimer's Disease

The World Alzheimer Congress 2000 convenes tomorrow in Washington, bringing together researchers from all over the world. The scientists have been studying Alzheimer’s Disease, a devastating illness that robs people of their minds. This year, however, Alzheimer’s patients and their families have some ray of hope.

"We are beginning to understand some of the very fundamental causes of Alzheimer's Disease, and more importantly, we are beginning to ask the really pivotal questions," says Bill Thies, chief scientist of the Alzheimer’s Association.

The news heartens people like Sarah Harris, who knows all too well the grief associated with Alzheimer's Disease. Her husband Ernie is only 56 years old, but three years into the disease, she must wash him, even brush his teeth.

"One day we woke up and he looked at me and said ‘Who are you?’" says Harris. "That was probably the most devastating thing that could happen to a person."

Researchers believe the root of the illness lies in ‘plaques,’ the tangle of cut-up proteins that destroys the brains of its victims. Researchers have now discovered a faulty enzyme -- gamma secretase -- which turns normal proteins into plaques. Scientists are now searching for drugs to block that enzyme and the destruction.

Experts say the big news at this meeting will be a possible vaccine to cure Alzheimer’s Disease. This first potential "vaccine" is about to be tested in humans. In laboratory mice, it has managed to shrink and clear the brain of plaques.

"Quite simply what it did in mice is it reduced the amount of plaque in the brain and the development of this ugly gunk and that's what it needs to do in humans. If it does that we have a real shot," says Dale Schenk, of Elan Pharmaceuticals.

Scientists warn against expecting a quick or simple cure for Alzheimer’s. The do say, though, that there is hope: Researchers finally have the basic knowledge to make progress possible.

Current figures show Alzheimer’s disease could strike 14 million Americans by the year 2050.

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