Muted Hope For Alzheimer's

Members of the media watch as an Airbus A380 make its inaugural visit to New York's Kennedy International Airport on March 19, 2007. The four-engine, double decker, superjumbo jet touched down at about 12:10 p.m. EDT, to the cheers of onlookers gathered to watch the arrival.
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
America is facing an Alzheimer's disease epidemic as the population lives longer and baby boomers age. Four million Americans already have it and there is no cure. Current treatments only slow, but cannot stop it.

So, is there any help on the way? In part two of a special three-part "Eye on America" series, Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports on a new experimental treatment that has provided hope for some.

Though she can still hit a mean backhand, Ruth Becker is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease with limited ability to perform every day tasks.

For her, treatment options are limited. She takes a drug widely prescribed for Alzheimer's called Aracept. According to her physician, Dr. Norman Relkin of the Weill Cornell Medical Center, the drug has slowed her mental demise.

Relkin realizes the treatment is not an answer for her illness but he says, "just being able to buy some time...being able to restore some semblance of stability to the lives of people suffering from this disease...I think it's a tremendous contribution."

Eye on America
Read the rest of the CBS News series of reports on Alzheimer's disease:

Part one: Drawbacks To Living Longer

Part three: Alzheimer's: The Unseen Victims

But Sue and Don Miller are interested in more than buying time. Don was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at 55. "Previous to Alzheimer's I had a very sharp mind. I had a high IQ which basically sort of took a large dive," he says.

Miller built a career as a financial manager only to find that he could no longer make change or pay bills. The doctor's diagnosis was a shock.

"I remember going to the second visit and he looked at us and said, 'have you two considered Alzheimer's?' And I think you could have picked us up off the floor. No - cancer, anything - but that was not on the list," says Sue Miller.

While most people are diagnosed in their 80s, Alzheimer's disease also strikes in middle age. Faced with a long, drawn-out loss of memory and mind, people diagnosed at a younger age are looking to the frontier of experimental medicine for a miracle. A new vaccine is the next best hope but it is still years away.

The Millers are considering a first-of-its-kind gene therapy experiment eing conducted at the University of California San Diego.

The procedure involves injecting a naturally occurring protein called nerve growth factor deep into the brain. Scientists believe nerve growth factor has the potential to revive dying brain cells and slow or even reverse aging.

It's been tried with success in monkeys and Dr. Mark Tuszynski, part of the team that is studying the new treatment, says animal research shows new cells and connections have grown as a result of the nerve growth factor.

"When we look at the effects of these growth factors in animals after injury in the context of aging...their effects are remarkable," says Tuszynski. "If we see a fraction of that translate into humans we may have something here."

But it's a big "if". The experiment means drilling holes into Don Miller's brain - risking pain, bleeding and even death.

"I don't know that I'm a risk taker but on the other hand there's nothing. And that's what's so frustrating here: there's nothing," says Sue Miller about their decision to proceed with the treatment.

But the Miller's children are dead against it. Their son, Brian Miller, is distraught that a breakthrough is in sight but not at hand: "Everything I've heard is 10 years down the road, 15 years down the road."

For the Millers, it's an agonizing choice between subjecting Don to the certain slow march of Alzheimer's or the uncertain risky race of medical exploration. Neither offers comfort.