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February 10, 2011

Health Innovation Report Supports Collaboration to Conquer Alzheimer's Disease


Radically new approaches to drug discovery and commercialization are needed to overcome drug resistant diseases and provide cures for a global population according to a new healthcare innovation report published by the University of Pennsylvania. In contrast to the slow, secretive and hugely expensive drug discovery models of traditional pharmaceutical companies, the key characteristics of this new healthcare innovation model are cross-institutional research collaboration, rapid dissemination of results, and open access to new data.

Researchers need to embrace collaborative information sharing tools and begin to share discoveries now covered by patent and intellectual property rights to accelerate the drug development and regulatory approval process. Terry Fadem, manager of the biosciences initiative at the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at Wharton said, "Throwing more money at the problem won't solve it.” Instead, he advocates fundamental changes in the process, starting with "a significant change in the way we develop drugs."

The report highlights the open-source approach to sharing research data on currently incurable conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, including the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI), which provides free research access on the Internet to resources such as brain scans, plasma, spinal fluid biomarkers and other data collected from some 800 individuals at sites in the United States and Canada. Since one of the major challenges of treating Alzheimer's is the difficulty of diagnosing the disease in its earliest stages, developing reliable Alzheimer’s biomarkers and other early diagnostic methods is a critical step to effective treatment and even a possible cure for the condition. 

The project has accelerated understanding of Alzheimer's disease through standardized collections of biomarker and clinical data from subjects whose conditions range from healthy to mildly impaired to those suffering from Alzheimer's. "For years we've been bedeviled by the wide variations" in lab tests that are designed to provide evidence of the onset and progression of Alzheimer's disease, said John Q. Trojanowski of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He and medical school colleague, Leslie M. Shaw, head a section of the initiative that looks for signs of the disease in blood and bodily fluids gathered from the cerebrospinal fluid that circulates around the brain and spinal cord.

The wealth of new data has helped Trojanowski zero in on evidence of the onset of Alzheimer's in subjects before they manifest clinical symptoms of the disease. "The variation in biomarkers has been reduced from 30 percent to 40 percent down to 10 percent," said Trojanowski. "This is a big advance. Our dream is to be able to have biomarkers" as clear as a blood-pressure measure that can signal hypertension so it can be treated before it leads to a heart attack or stroke. "We hope to develop similar predictive tests so that we can tell someone at 50 that he will have Alzheimer's at 70," and give treatment to prevent or ameliorate it, Trojanowski added.

Terry Fadem at the Mack Center sees this effort as a great example of the value of research collaboration, "ADNI creates an opportunity to study a large and significant body of patients," he noted, and is a "phenomenally good" collaborative project. Based at the University of California, San Francisco, the five-year project was funded by grants from NIH and other agencies, as well as from drug makers and foundations, and has now been extended to 2015.

MedhealthWorld covers drug discovery and treatment breakthroughs, including gene therapy, and clinical trials for innovative cancer vaccines.


Ms. Graham is a writer and editor with a current focus on health and wellness. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Jaclyn Allard

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