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​New trial to treat Alzheimer's seen as "game changing"

"For the first time I think we have a chance to really change the course of Alzheimer's disease," says Dr. Reisa Sperling
Clinical trial hailed as "game changer" for Alzheimer's 03:03

BOSTON -- Helene DeCoste of Boston is a patient in a ground breaking clinical trial, testing whether a drug called Solanezumab can slow down or even prevent Alzheimer's disease. No drug has even come close before, but researchers have never tested patients quite like Helene in quite this way before.

"She is a perfect patient for this trial," said Dr. Reisa Sperling, a physician at Harvard University and the project director of what's called the A4 Study.

Helene DeCoste, a patient in the A4 Alzheimer's Study CBS News

A4 is an ambitious, international trial in which 60 hospitals are looking for 1,000 patients like DeCoste. Dr. Sperling says they have to be patients who are not yet exhibiting signs of memory loss, but who also have brain scans suggesting they will get Alzheimer's in the future.

Specifically they have a buildup of what's called amyloid plaque, which doctors believe is what kills off brain cells. The hope in this trial is that the drug will destroy the amyloid before the amyloid destroys the brain.

Dr. Sperling says she's excited, calling this trial "game changing."

A brain scan showing a build up of amyloid plaque, in red, which doctors think is the cause of brain cell death CBS News
Dr. Reisa Sperling, the project director of the A4 Study CBS News

"For the first time I think we have a chance to really change the course of Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Sperling told me.

Still for the patients just being in this trial means you've been told you are likely to get this disease. Helene said she set herself up to expect the worst before getting the news.

"I'm going to do everything I can do to help myself put it off as long as I can," DeCoste told me.

Dr. Sperling and DeCoste did not know each other before, but they have the same personal reasons for fighting Alzheimer's. Dr. Sperling lost her grandfather to Alzheimer's; DeCoste has watched her sister who has the disease, and her mother, who died because of it, both suffer anguishing declines.

"I just couldn't deal," said DeCoste. "Your mother doesn't know who you are. My sister now has it and she's only six years older than I am. I used to say to my kids that if I get this disease, shoot me because it's horrible to watch someone go through it."

An important study released Tuesday from the Mayo Clinic identifies a different toxic protein called tau as the likely cause of Alzheimer's. Most researchers believe that tau and amyloid are connected and the A4 Study has now been expanded to track the buildup of both in the brains of these patients.

For information on how to volunteer for the A4 Study, call 844-A-4-STUDY
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