SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Doctors in Sacramento believe they've made a breakthrough in the battle against Alzheimer's disease.
Pat Beekler and Dick D'Agostino are what many would call soulmates. Married 25 years, the couple finishes each other's sentences and share a birthday.
They also share in a challenge touching millions of families. Two years ago, Pat was diagnosed with the early stages of dementia of the Alzheimer's type.
She's far from alone. The reach of the disease is staggering according to the Alzheimer's Association, which says more than 5 million people in the United States have the disease. Two-thirds of them are women.
"The unique thing about Alzheimer's is that makes it very different is in many ways, unlike regular death, the patient mentally has expired in some ways yet they are right there with you with their family for years. So the process of going thru the grief is prolonged sometimes for a decade or more," said neuroradiologist Azad Ghassemi.
Doctors have unsuccessfully searched for decades for a cure or a way to slow its progression. At the Sutter Neuroscience Institute in Sacramento, doctors say the results of a new trial are promising.
"What we were trying to do is treat the actual cause of Alzheimer's," said Dr. Shawn Kile.
He's leading the trial at the forefront of the fight against the disease, and says the cause of the disease has long been clear, though the cure has proven elusive.
"We've known this ever since Dr. Alzheimer's described the disease in 1906, we know what occurs is there's an accumulation of brain protein and it leads to brain cell loss over time and we can see that will imaging‚" he said.
The new trial gives patients a blood produce called intravenous immunoglobulin, or IVIG. Kile explains it works by filling patients with antibodies they don't have—antibodies to stop the proteins from developing that cause plaque to form in the brain. That plaque is what kills brain cells and causes parts of the brain to essentially die off.
"It was a 50 subject trial, so half received the treatment and half were placebo. We followed the subjects for two years, we did serial brain imaging at one year and then again at 2 years. And we were looking for signs of atrophy," he said.
Brain atrophy, or shrinking, is a clear sign of Alzheimer's. Doctors wanted to see if the IVIG would slow the atrophy and brain cell loss. Ghassemi read the brain scans and says the initial difference was obvious.
"The difference that we noted was the natural process of brain volume loss or atrophy had slowed down in patients with the medicine compared to those who did not," he said.
Patients were given the treatment in the first few weeks of the trial and monitored. Neurologists say the positive effects after one year appeared to wear off after two years.
"At once year, the patients who received the treatment had less brain atrophy and it was significant. And at two years, there was still a difference but it wasn't significant," Kile said.
But doctors aren't discouraged. They say more doses may be needed to keep brain decline away, and are now planning a larger trial with more patients, hopeful this treatment could represent the beginnings of a breakthrough.
"Unfortunately at this point there is not much as far as pharmacological therapy that can be given to patients with Alzheimer's, so the fact that this IVIG or this medication made even the slightest difference is still statistically significant and can bring hope to many families that have people that do not recognize them anymore," Ghassemi said.
Pat and Dick believe someday science will unlock the mysteries of Alzheimer's.
"They will find the cause and the cure of Alzheimer's," Pat said. "They'll find it for cancer; I don't know when, it'll be awhile, but eventually all of that will come about."
For now, they're staying active and getting every minute out of every precious day as they face they unforgiving disease together.
"She's still the same person that I married," he said. "She's the same but different we are in a different phase of our life, but we've got a commitment, and we're working on it, we're dealing with it."
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