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Next Alzheimer's Disease Drug: Lipitor?

Benefit of Lipitor in Group of Early Alzheimer's Patients Prompts Large Studies
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WebMD Health News

May 9, 2005 -- A researcher's hunch -- made more than 20 years ago in a Kentucky medical examiner's office -- may soon lead to a new treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

The treatment is the brainchild of D. Larry Sparks, PhD, now head of the Roberts Laboratory for Neurodegenerative Disease Research at Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City, Ariz.

"We may have found a new medication that will be of benefit in the treatment -- and hopefully, in slowing the progression -- of neurodegenerative disorders," Sparks tells WebMD.

Though the treatment is new -- it seeks to remove excess cholesterol from the brains of Alzheimer's patients -- the drug being tested is very familiar. It's Lipitor, a widely used member of the family of cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins.

Sparks is quick to point out that only large clinical trials can prove whether or not Lipitor really helps people with Alzheimer's disease. Two such trials are under way. Early results are expected in about two years.

"Everybody has great hope for these studies," Alzheimer's Association spokesman Bill Thies, MD, tells WebMD. "We are waiting on these bigger trials to take the next step, before saying anyone with dementia should be on statins."

Two decades ago, Sparks noticed something nobody else had seen. At the time, everyone thought that brain-clogging amyloid plaques could be seen only in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease. Yet Sparks found them in the brains of people who had died from coronary artery disease -- the buildup of cholesterol in the walls of arteries.

Animal and laboratory studies convinced Sparks -- and his doubting colleagues -- that excess cholesterol in the brain is, indeed, linked to Alzheimer's disease.

According to the American Heart Association, elevated cholesterol is an important risk factor for Alzheimer's disease. But can lowering cholesterol in the blood improve brain function in people with Alzheimer's disease?

Maybe. Last year, Sparks reported encouraging early results from a study in which people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease took Lipitor. Now Sparks and colleagues report their final results, based on 63 Alzheimer's patients who finished at least three months of Lipitor treatment.

"Patients were better after six months of treatment than they were at the start," Sparks tells WebMD. "It was noticeable to their doctors at the end of a year. There were patients who were on Lipitor for a whole year and then went off it. And after a month, their family members said to put them back on the drug. So the improvement is enough for families to notice the difference."

People who have Alzheimer's disease can have depression that typically worsens as the disease progresses. Unexpectedly, the Alzheimer's patients who took Lipitor were significantly less depressed than they were at the beginning of the study.

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