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Bio Technology : July 2009
AusBioFEATURE Aiming for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease “There are less of us with each depleted memory.” Don DeLillo; Journalist, The New Yorker, 2003 By Dr Greg Thomas, CEO, Alzhyme Ltd Alzheimer’s disease was first described by the German clinician Alois Alzheimer in 1906. It is the most common type of dementia, accounting for approximately two thirds of all dementia cases. Alzheimer’s disease affects approximately 1% of the world’s population. Its incidence increases in the elderly, particularly those past the age of 65 (‘late onset’ Alzheimer’s disease), where the chances of developing the disease are approximately 5% and then doubles every five years. After 85 years of age there is a 50% chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Although the disease is more common among elderly people, younger people can also be affected. ‘Early onset’ Alzheimer’s disease typically occurs at 40 to 50 years of age. Slow to begin, the effects become accelerated as the disease progresses, until eventually the sufferer often requires complete palliative care. On average, diagnosed patients live for eight to ten years, though the disease can last for up to 20 years. Early onset Alzheimer’s disease progresses more rapidly than late onset. While a number of genetic risk factors have been identified they account for less than 10% of all Alzheimer’s disease cases. There are currently estimated to be more than 26m Alzheimer’s sufferers worldwide, with the incidence 28 Australasian BioTechnology Volume 19 • Number 2 • July 2009 increasing rapidly due to the overall growth and ageing of the world’s population. On a global scale it is conservatively estimated that the number of people affected will double by 2025 and one in 85 people will have the disease by 2050. In Australia 227,000 people have dementia of which 153,000 have Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050 the total number of people in Australia with dementia related diseases will exceed 730,000, taking the total economic cost of dementia to Australia $6.6b per annum, while the cost in terms of human suffering is immeasurable. Understandably Alzheimer’s disease has a profound effect not only on the sufferers but also their families and friends and is not specific to any particular social class, gender, ethnic group or geographical location. The symptoms develop gradually as more and more brain cells degenerate and die, resulting in the disruption of the brain’s chemicals that carry messages in the brain. A range of clinically observable changes occur, such as gradual and progressive impairment in memory, language, an ability to do calculations, visual and spatial perceptions and judgement. These impairments adversely affect the person’s functional abilities and can change behaviours. Alzheimer’s disease is characterised by the presence of protein deposits called senile plaques in regions of the brain that are associated with memory. These plaques