"The graveyard of hope." That's what experts call the quest for effective Alzheimer's treatments, a two-decade effort that has been marked by one costly and high-profile failure after another. Nearly all of the drugs tested target one of the key hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease: amyloid plaques, the barnacle-like proteins long considered the culprits behind the memory-robbing ravages of the disease. Yet all the anti-amyloid drugs have flopped miserably, prompting some scientists to believe we've fingered the wrong villain.
"We're flogging a dead horse," says Peter Davies, PhD, an Alzheimer's researcher at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York. "The fact that no one's gotten better suggests that you have the wrong mechanism."
If the naysayers are right, how could a scientific juggernaut of this magnitude—involving hundreds of scientists in academia and industry at a cost of tens of billions of dollars--be so far off the mark? There are no easy answers, but some experts believe this calls into question how research is conducted and blame part of the failure on the insular culture of the scientific aristocracy at leading academic institutions.
"The field began to be dominated by narrow views."
"The field began to be dominated by narrow views," says George Perry, PhD, an Alzheimer's researcher and dean of the College of Sciences at the University of Texas in San Antonio. "The people pushing this were incredibly articulate, powerful and smart. They'd go to scientific meetings and all hang around with each other and they'd self-reinforce."
In fairness, there was solid science driving this. Post-mortem analyses of Alzheimer's patients found their brains were riddled with amyloid plaques. People with a strong family history of Alzheimer's had genetic mutations in the genes that encode for the production of amyloids. And in animal studies, scientists found that if amyloids were inserted into the brains of transgenic mice, they exhibited signs of memory loss. Remove the amyloids and they suddenly got better. This body of research helped launch the Amyloid Cascade Hypothesis of the disease in 1992—which has driven research ever since.
Scientists believed that the increase in the production of these renegade proteins, which form sticky plaques and collect outside of the nerve cells in the brain, triggers a series of events that interfere with the signaling system between synapses. This seems to prevent cells from relaying messages or talking to each other, causing memory loss, confusion and increasing difficulties doing the normal tasks of life. The path forward seemed clear: stop amyloid production and prevent disease progression. "We were going after the obvious abnormality," says Dr. David Knopman, a neurologist and Alzheimer's researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
"Why wouldn't you do that?" Why ideed.
In hindsight, though, there was no real smoking gun—no one ever showed precisely how the production of amyloids instigates the destruction of vital brain circuits.
"Amyloids are clearly important," says Perry, "but they have not proven to be necessary and sufficient for the development of this disease."
Ironically, there have been hints all along that amyloids may not be toxic bad boys.
A handful of studies revealed that amyloid proteins are produced in healthy brains to protect synapses. Research on animal models that mimic diseases suggest that certain forms of amyloids can ease damage from strokes, traumatic brain injuries and even heart attacks. In a 2013 study, to cite just one example, a Stanford University team injected synthetic amyloids into paralyzed mice with an inflammatory disorder similar to multiple sclerosis. Instead of worsening their symptoms—which is what the researchers expected to happen--the mice could suddenly walk again. Remove the amyloids, and they became paralyzed once more.
Still other studies suggest amyloids may actually function as molecular guardians dispatched to silence inflammation and mop up errant cells after an injury as part of the body's waste management system. "The presence of amyloids is a protective response to something going wrong, a threat," says Dr. Dale Bredesen, a UCLA neurologist. "But the problem arises when the threats are chronic, multiple, unrelenting and intense. The defenses the brain mounts are also intense and these protective mechanisms cross the line into causing harm, and killing the very synapses and brain cells the amyloid was called up to protect."
So how did research get derailed?
In a way, we're victims of our own success, critics say.
Early medical triumphs in the heady post-World War II era, like the polio vaccine that eradicated the crippling childhood killer, or antibiotics, reinforced the magic bullet idea of curing disease--find a target and then hit it relentlessly. That's why when scientists made the link between amyloids and disease progression, Big Pharma jumped on the bandwagon in hopes of inventing a trillion-dollar drug. This approach is fine when you have an acute illness, like an infectious disease that's caused by one agent, but not for something as complicated as Alzheimer's.
The other piece of the problem is the dwindling federal dollars for basic research. Maverick scientists find it difficult to secure funding, which means that other possible targets or approaches remained relatively unexplored—and drug companies are understandably reluctant to sponsor fishing expeditions with little guarantee of a payoff. "Very influential people were driving this hypothesis," says Davies, and with careers on the line, "there was not enough objectivity or skepticism about that hypothesis."
Still, no one is disputing the importance of anti-amyloid drugs—and ongoing clinical trials, like the DIAN and A4 studies, are intervening earlier in patients who are at a high risk of developing Alzheimer's, but before they're symptomatic. "The only way to know if this is really a dead end is if you take it as far as it can go," says Knopman. "I believe the A4 study is the proper way to test the amyloid hypothesis."
But according to some experts, the latest thinking is that Alzheimer's is triggered by a range of factors, including genetics, poor diet, stress and lack of exercise.
"Alzheimer's is like other chronic age-related diseases and is multi-factorial," says Perry. "Modulating amyloids may have value but other avenues need to be explored."
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.