Phil Gutis never had a stellar memory, but when he reached his early 50s, it became a problem he could no longer ignore. He had trouble calculating how much to tip after a meal, finding things he had just put on his desk, and understanding simple driving directions.
From 1998-2017, industry sources reported 146 failed attempts at developing Alzheimer's drugs.
So three years ago, at age 54, he answered an ad for a drug trial seeking people experiencing memory issues. He scored so low in the memory testing he was told something was wrong. M.R.I.s and PET scans confirmed that he had early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
Gutis, who is a former New York Times reporter and American Civil Liberties Union spokesman, felt fortunate to get into an advanced clinical trial of a new treatment for Alzheimer's disease. The drug, called aducanumab, had shown promising results in earlier studies.
Four years of data had found that the drug effectively reduced the burden of protein fragments called beta-amyloids, which destroy connections between nerve cells. Amyloid plaques are found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease and are associated with impairments in thinking and memory.
Gutis eagerly participated in the clinical trial and received 35 monthly infusions. "For the first 20 infusions, I did not know whether I was receiving the drug or the placebo," he says. "During the last 15 months, I received aducanumab. But it really didn't matter if I was receiving the drug or the placebo because on March 21, the trial was stopped because [the drug company] Biogen found that the treatments were ineffective."
The news was devastating to the trial participants, but also to the Alzheimer's research community. Earlier this year, another pharmaceutical company, Roche, announced it was discontinuing two of its Alzheimer's clinical trials. From 1998-2017, industry sources reported 146 failed attempts at developing Alzheimer's drugs. There are five prescription drugs approved to treat its symptoms, but a cure remains elusive. The latest failures have left researchers scratching their heads about how to approach attacking the disease.
The failure of aducanumab was also another setback for the estimated 5.8 million people who have Alzheimer's in the United States. Of these, around 5.6 million are older than 65 and 200,000 suffer from the younger-onset form, including Gutis.
Gutis is understandably distraught about the cancellation of the trial. "I really had hopes it would work. So did all the patients."
While drug companies have failed so far, another group is stepping up to expedite the development of a cure: venture philanthropists.
For now, he is exercising every day to keep his blood flowing, which is supposed to delay the progression of the disease, and trying to eat a low-fat diet. "But I know that none of it will make a difference. Alzheimer's is a progressive disease. There are no treatments to delay it, let alone cure it."
But while drug companies have failed so far, another group is stepping up to expedite the development of a cure: venture philanthropists. These are successful titans of industry and dedicated foundations who are donating large sums of money to fill a much-needed void – funding research to look for new biomarkers.
Biomarkers are neurochemical indicators that can be used to detect the presence of a disease and objectively measure its progression. There are currently no validated biomarkers for Alzheimer's, but researchers are actively studying promising candidates. The hope is that they will find a reliable way to identify the disease even before the symptoms of mental decline show up, so that treatments can be directed at a very early stage.
Howard Fillit, Founding Executive Director and Chief Science Officer of the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation, says, "We need novel biomarkers to diagnose Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. But pharmaceutical companies don't put money into biomarkers research."
One of the venture philanthropists who has recently stepped up to the task is Bill Gates. In January 2018, he announced his father had Alzheimer's disease in an interview on the Today Show with Maria Shriver, whose father Sargent Shriver, died of Alzheimer's disease in 2011. Gates told Ms. Shriver that he had invested $100 million into Alzheimer's research, with $50 million of his donation going to Dementia Discovery Fund, which looks for new cures and treatments.
That August, Gates joined other investors in a new fund called Diagnostics Accelerator. The project aims to supports researchers looking to speed up new ideas for earlier and better diagnosis of the disease.
Gates and other donors committed more than $35 million to help launch it, and this April, Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos joined the coalition, bringing the current program funding to nearly $50 million.
"It makes sense that a challenge this significant would draw the attention of some of the world's leading thinkers."
None of these funders stand to make a profit on their donation, unlike traditional research investments by drug companies. The standard alternatives to such funding have upsides -- and downsides.
As Bill Gates wrote on his blog, "Investments from governments or charitable organizations are fantastic at generating new ideas and cutting-edge research -- but they're not always great at creating usable products, since no one stands to make a profit at the end of the day.
"Venture capital, on the other end of the spectrum, is more likely to develop a test that will reach patients, but its financial model favors projects that will earn big returns for investors. Venture philanthropy splits the difference. It incentivizes a bold, risk-taking approach to research with an end goal of a real product for real patients. If any of the projects backed by Diagnostics Accelerator succeed, our share of the financial windfall goes right back into the fund."
Gutis said he is thankful for any attention given to finding a cure for Alzheimer's.
"Most doctors and scientists will tell you that we're still in the dark ages when it comes to fully understanding how the brain works, let alone figuring out the cause or treatment for Alzheimer's.
"It makes sense that a challenge this significant would draw the attention of some of the world's leading thinkers. I only hope they can be more successful with their entrepreneurial approach to finding a cure than the drug companies have been with their more traditional paths."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”