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Funded by a $4.2 million grant from the Alzheimer’s Association, the first Alzheimer’s prevention trials are currently enrolling participants.

Randall Bateman, MD, a Washington University neurologist, is the principal investigator of the trials, which will determine if the disease can be halted or delayed before problems in memory and other brain functions become apparent. Bateman also serves as the director of the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer’s Network (DIAN) Therapeutic Trials Unit at Washington University.

The trials will be conducted through DIAN, an international research partnership focused on understanding inherited forms of Alzheimer’s. DIAN is headed by Washington University neurologist John Morris, MD. Bateman and Morris treat patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

Families enrolled in the study have inherited forms of Alzheimer’s that cause dementia at a much earlier age than the more common sporadic forms of the disease. Scientists have identified mutations in three genes that cause inherited Alzheimer’s. An individual who inherits one of these mutations typically develops symptoms of the disease at approximately the same young age as his or her parent.

DIAN researchers announced at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in 2011 that they could detect biological markers of presymptomatic disease in DIAN participants up to 20 years before the patients were expected to develop memory problems.

With advice from a newly formed consortium of 10 pharmaceutical companies, DIAN researchers under Bateman’s leadership will select what they believe to be promising pharmaceuticals for the trials. They will give the drugs to family members who have an early-onset Alzheimer’s gene and biological markers of disease but do not yet have symptoms of dementia. The goal is to see if treatment can reduce the biological markers, potentially delaying or preventing the onset of symptoms.

“Experimental treatments have risks, so to treat patients before symptoms occur, we must be sure that we have a firm grasp on who will develop Alzheimer’s dementia,” says Morris. “If we can find a way to delay or prevent dementia in DIAN participants, that would be a tremendous success story and very helpful in our efforts to treat the much more common sporadic forms of the illness.”

In addition to Washington University, other institutions involved in DIAN are Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Brown University, Columbia University, Indiana University, the University of California Los Angeles, the University College of London’s Institute of Neurology at Queen’s Square and a consortium of the universities of Brisbane, Perth and Sydney in Australia.

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