Discovery of Alzheimer's genes provides hope for future treatment

The findings are not expected to have an immediate impact on how patients are diagnosed and treated.

By Christine S. Moyer — Posted April 20, 2011

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The discovery of five genes linked to Alzheimer's disease offers scientists insight into what causes the condition and advances efforts to treat and eventually prevent the disease, say the authors of two studies.

The finding boosts the number of known Alzheimer's-related genes to 10. But it is not expected to have an immediate impact on how physicians diagnose and treat Alzheimer's patients, experts say.

"The effect right this minute is probably limited. ... But in the long term, this is the kind of data you're going to need to tailor your therapies to a specific individual, " said Bill Thies, PhD, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer's Assn., the largest private, nonprofit funder of Alzheimer's research.

When scientists identify enough Alzheimer's-related genes -- possibly 100 or more -- health professionals could conduct a genome-wide test on patients to measure their likelihood of developing the disease, Thies said. The more Alzheimer's-related genes a patient has, the greater the risk of being diagnosed with the condition.

Identifying new genes also creates opportunities for drug development. Current medication improves symptoms and delays the decline of the disease for some patients. But none of the drugs modifies the disease process.

An estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Assn. By 2050, as many as 16 million could have the neurologic condition, which is the leading cause of dementia.

Details of the new genes were published online April 3 in the journal Nature Genetics. One study, which was conducted by the Alzheimer's Disease Genetics Consortium, analyzed the genes of more than 54,000 people age 60-65. The Philadelphia-based consortium aims to identify genetic variants associated with risks for Alzheimer's.

Some study participants had late-onset Alzheimer's, while those in the control group had no signs of dementia. Researchers found four new genes that contribute to the likelihood of a person developing late-onset Alzheimer's (link).

The consortium also supplied information to a second study, which was led by international researchers. The team confirmed the genes found by the Americans and identified a fifth gene (link).

Some of the genes are involved with lipid processing and endocytosis. Others are linked to inflammation. They all are considered important factors in the process of Alzheimer's disease.

"We are making progress. This is a monumental leap in terms of what we know" about Alzheimer's, said Gerard D. Schellenberg, PhD, lead author of the Genetics Consortium study and professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

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